This is a tale of Old School Magic, and it begins al fresco, on a patio in front of a bar called Grendel’s Den (yes, that Grendel, the mythical fiend, the shadow-stalker, and the defendant in a landmark Supreme Court case).
The sun is starting to come out over Harvard Square. Steve is bearing down on the table with his army of Kobolds, a pitcher of sangria at his side. His little red bastards are locking horns with my little green ones. Eventually he sticks a Gauntlet, and then smiles as he lays down his sideboard tech: an Earthbind against my poor Emerald Dragonfly.
It’s Friday afternoon, the day before MobsterCon, and I’m two solid weeks into iterating on a UG Berserk list for Mano’s inaugural Team Unified event. I’ve brewed it specifically to slot into our team’s multi-deck configuration, alongside Scott’s fully powered The Deck, and Jared’s Mana Vault-enabled Atog pile. Scott has the Power, Jared gets the Lightning Bolts, and the Serendib Efreets are all mine.
Our train to New Jersey was set to leave South Station at 4pm, but I still managed to find time to jam two full pick-up matches of Old School at Grendel’s between the hours of 1:30 and 3:15. It’s safe to say that my testing process for this deck had gotten a little intense.
I had a fixed purpose when I put to sea.
As I sat in the boat with my band of men,
I meant to perform to the uttermost
what your people wanted or perish in the attempt,
in the fiend’s clutches. And I shall fulfil that purpose,
prove myself with a proud deed
or meet my death here in the mead-hall. — Beowulf, 632-638
After the Kobold battle royale, our man Nicky Scars turns up to the mead-hall to share his diabolical concoction involving Pestilence, White Knight, and Meekstone. It proves a very capable weapon against my swarm of x/1 creatures (snuffed out by Pestilence) and Serendibs (locked down under Meekstone, and still pinging me to death). In at least two of our games he gets everything truly up and running, and it’s a beautiful sight to behold:
For a reasonable person on a typical weekend, just these two spicy matches, the excellent company, the perfect outdoor temperature, and the glare of the late spring sunshine reflecting off my ‘Gansett tallboy would be enough to crystallize into a sublime memory all its own, and we’d leave it at that.
But I am no longer exactly a reasonable person when it comes to Old School Magic. And this would not exactly be a typical weekend.
A short T ride later and I’m standing in South Station with Jared. Scott, on the other hand, is trapped in gridlock in East Boston, or maybe in one of the tunnels or something, and his anxiety is so palpable it is emanating from our phones. The clock is ticking. Should he take the Silver Line? Should he hop in a cab? “But the cab uses the same tunnel as the Silver Line!” Water taxi? Seriously, Scott must be white-knuckling it, crawling along at 2 mph in a tunnel under Boston Harbor, and he has us both freaked out that he’ll miss the train and ruin the entire tournament.
The logistics gods intervene just enough, and Scott joins us at the exact moment that our line begins to move down the platform to board the Acela. We pick up our pace, and maybe throw some elbows, in order to make sure that we’re able to get a four-top table on the correct side of the train, that is, the side that has windows looking out across bays and harbors and rivers and beaches and great swaths of the Long Island Sound, all the way to New York.
The effort pays off, and the extra expense of booking train tickets instead of driving is worth every goddamn penny. Instead of leaving Boston in a car at 4pm on a Friday, suffering through the full hour and a half needed to escape our city’s gravity well of traffic and misery, only to be rewarded with another four hours in the car, in which one of us has to drive and the other two can only stare at the road ahead and make snarky comments, we’re here, traveling in a much more civilized fashion. We can stretch our legs. We can move around. We can visit the café car. And we can play Magic: The Gathering.
Gliding along the Connecticut coastline at 80 mph, drinking beers, jamming games with two of your best buds. There is nothing finer.
We use our time pretty effectively. Scott recovers quickly from his Eastie misadventures with some liquid refreshment (9% ABV), and we jump headlong into playing a complete round robin series, best of three, with sideboards, using our MobsterCon tournament decks. Scott (The Deck) beats me (UGb Berserk), I beat Jared (UR Atog, light on the blue, but writing “RU Atog” just looks stupid), and Jared beats Scott, a very neat rock-paper-scissors outcome, and probably correct for the matchups. We quibble over the 59th and 60th cards in each of our lists, plus the all-important sideboard plans, and importantly (maybe incorrectly) we talk ourselves in to Juggernauts over Su-Chis in Jared’s list. During testing, he had taken a ton of mana burn damage from the Su-Chis (which are inherently unstable, but provided useful knowledge for Tocasia’s students), and that experience is weighing heavily on our judgment. Besides, as our Team Unified theorycrafting has it figured, there will be fewer Lightning Bolts in the room, which will make for a slightly safer environment for He Who Must Attack Each Turn than your typical 93/94 meta. So we make our last-minute card swaps, and our 225-card configuration is locked in.
In the blur of gaming, drinking, and hanging, our four-and-a-half hour train ride absolutely evaporates. The sun is just going down as we cross the Hell Gate into New York, and once we emerge from Penn Station, night has fallen in earnest. The Acela finally rolls into Iselin, New Jersey, at a place called Metropark, only about a 10 minute Uber ride from the tournament hotel. Unfortunately for our Uber driver (and, by extension, unfortunately for us), the E Hotel Banquet & Conference Center is located at the bottom of a GPS black hole. Following the guidance of his navigation app, he blows right past the venue, takes a sharp right turn onto an actual highway, and awkwardly attempts to drop us off on the shoulder as other cars whiz by at 60+ mph. It quickly becomes clear that this won’t work, so we take a series of offramps and jughandles and access roads in order to circle back around, ultimately pulling up to the hotel several confusing minutes later.
Our bags in hand, we walk across the threshold, straight into 1998. Fluorescent lights buzz overhead. A whiff of fossilized cigarette smoke hits the nostrils. There’s a gritty patina clinging to the ivory-colored faux leather sofas in the lobby, telling the tales of tens of thousands of bygone asses that came before.
Truly, I get what he was going for. Mano was clearly reaching back for those heady days of his youth, the glory of the PTQ circuit, the era of Gray Matter and all that. And what could be more fitting for a tournament where we play a format driven by nostalgia than his decision to host it at a decaying venue, also driven by nostalgia?
We check in, get our keys, and ride the creaky elevator up to the top floor. Arriving at Room 916, Jared tries his keycard. The door doesn’t unlock. He tries again, maybe with a little more moxie this time. Nothing. What the hell? We’re grabbing at the door handle, fumbling for another one of our cards to see if that will work, and all of the sudden the door opens, and there’s a dude on the other side. He’s as confused as we are, and he blurts out a whole string of exclamations: “What are you doing? I’m the manager. I’ve been living here for a week. They made a mistake. Why did they give you this room?” Why, indeed, strange man. Why indeed.
We ride the creaky elevator back down to the lobby, in full agreement that this place is straight out of a David Lynch feature: the ambiance, the cast of characters we’ve met so far, the low-key yet pervasive sense of foreboding. And things get even more Lynchian a moment later, when I get a cryptic text from Mike Frantz, an Old School player from Pennsylvania:
This is not completely on par with “that gum you like is going to come back in style” or “the owls are not what they seem,” but things are definitely getting weird.
Meanwhile, Svante Landgraf has been waiting for us in the lobby. He’s traveled all the way from actual Sweden for this event. He reports that he’s explored the first floor of the hotel a bit, and quickly confirms that the only bar-like area of the building, the “Polo Lounge,” is absolutely not an option, for a variety of reasons that I won’t get into here. We opt instead to get back into a car and head to Miller’s Ale House in nearby Woodbridge, which is a better fit for our purposes: big tables, not too crowded or loud, reasonable sports bar vibe overall.
Unfortunately, our Uber ride to Miller’s also has to be mentioned specifically, as our driver was acting like he had never operated an automobile in his entire life, and was also having a really hard time deciphering basic navigation instructions from his phone. Jared was in the front seat, basically holding this guy’s hand and giving turn-by-turn counsel. So we’re sitting at 0-for-2 on the day in our attempts at replacement-level taxi rides without incident.
Our small party at Miller’s is joined by Michael Scheffenacker and Tom Swindell, who have just driven up from Maryland, and are also staying at the hotel that time forgot. Tom has with him a cardboard longbox containing a gauntlet of proxied Old School decks, so we bust right into that after enjoying some food and drink. Svante and I play games with the Atog deck and the Twiddlevault deck, and he beats me soundly with both of them (we switch decks in between games). Scott and I also absentmindedly jam some Alpha-only (insert format name here), a Psychic Venom mirror, but his list is all Wall of Air and Prodigal Sorcerer, while mine splashes red for 5x Lightning Bolt and contains zero creatures. There’s also some Premodern at the table, some more 93/94 jams, and the usual scuttlebutt about B&R lists. Schef, for the record, is increasingly of the opinion that unrestricted Recall is probably more of a problem than unrestricted Time Vault in formats where those are a thing. I tend to agree with this, but time will tell.
It’s just past midnight when we finally meander out of the ale house and into the New Jersey night. A stale methane odor hangs in the air. Not wanting to risk another surreal Uber experience, we cram ourselves into the back seat of Tom’s Mazda hatchback, return to the E Hotel, and call it quits.
Morning brings a breakfast of champions at the Metuchen Diner (quintessential New Jersey), joined again by Schef and Tom, and then we’re back to the tournament venue to gird ourselves for a long day of battle. For our three-man team, the Winter Hill Gang, that means donning South Boston-style scally caps and t-shirts graced with the logo of Triple O’s Lounge, the erstwhile Southie hangout of Whitey Bulger and his known associates. This is MobsterCon, after all, and we fully intend to honor the theme and spirit in which Mano’s tournament was conceived. The scally caps even have a sweet lobster logo embroidered into the seam in the back:
Along with getting into costume, I needed to take care of one other pre-tournament task: cracking open a BGS 9 Alpha Berserk, which I had more or less purchased specifically for the occasion. This Berserk would complete my Alpha playset, and I have to admit that part of the reason for my deck choice for the day was my desire to use all four of those babies in a deck for the first time. With some timely advice and borrowed hardware from my friend Adam Merkado, and a little bit of elbow grease, one more choice bit of cardboard from 1993 was out of its plastic prison and back in a deck box where it belonged.
We settle into the banquet hall, which is fortunately the nicest, cleanest, most up-to-date space in the entire building. We’re 20 teams strong (60 players total), and we’ll have the perfect amount of room for activities. Mano’s wife Janine is expertly manning the check-in and pairings platform, while their children are adorably handing out the event swag (an embroidered MobsterCon patch, a sweet sticker, an Antiquities Atog card for your opponents to sign), as well as giving each team member a hand stamp corresponding to their chair for the day: Atog for Seat A, Black Lotus for Seat B, Chaos Orb for Seat C.
As the ink from the Chaos Orb stamp begins to absorb into my skin, I size up the room. There are a lot of Old School regulars from up and down the Eastern Seaboard, especially greater New York and Pennsylvania, and there are Mano’s close friends and orbit of ringers, including luminaries like Jon Finkel, Matt Sperling, Jamie Parke, and a few other undoubtedly strong players with pedigrees and bona fides unknown to me, exposing obvious gaps in my knowledge of non-Old School formats and the history of competitive Magic. My teammates and I recognize that the path to victory today runs straight through teams like Mano’s (Finkel and Parke), Sperling’s (Lan Ho and Daniel O’Mahoney-Schwartz), and Lepine’s (Jeff White and some guy named Elmo, pinch hitting for Adam Lemke), to say nothing of the other very strong teams that are stacked with entrenched Old School veterans.
And right off the bat, we’re paired against Lepine/White/Elmo, team name: The Oi Oi Oi Boys. Lepine is on mono-black, and he dispatches me pretty quickly. He offers a bonus game and I accept, eager to give my deck another chance to do what it does, especially with Dervishes brought in from the sideboard. Meanwhile, Scott is doing fine against Elmo, and Jared is heading toward a game 3 against Jeff. After my extra game with Lepine, I get up, stretch my legs, and wander over to check on Scott. By the time I make it back to my chair, Jared is locked in a tense topdecking war with Jeff, both of their life totals in the mid-single digits. Jared has an Icy Manipulator on board, and Jeff has a Mana Vault. We go through Jeff’s draw without tapping the Mana Vault down. Wait, what? “Uhh… what’s going on here? Why are we not tapping the Mana Vault to deal damage?” Apparently Jeff and Jared had convinced each other that you can pay 4 to untap Mana Vault at any time during the upkeep phase, so it’s pointless for Jared to tap it down, as that would only be trading 1 mana (the Icy activation) for 1 mana (the net difference between Mana Vault’s untap cost and the mana it can generate). My eyes widen a little bit, and I immediately and forcefully explain how Mana Vault’s upkeep and draw triggers work, probably failing to conceal my true feelings about how all of this is going down. It comes out that they’ve been topdecking for like eight or ten turns or something, so Jared could have had this one, but he doesn’t, and Jeff finds a Bolt or whatever to end the game and take the entire match. I feel miserable about this, and immediately gain an acute appreciation for how important it is for teammates to be dialed into each other’s games, and actually go out of their way to communicate with one another. Magic is normally such an individual sport, so to speak, and playing on a team really changes the dynamic in a way that I hadn’t really understood or respected until this very moment. It’s a lesson that I’d try hard to remember throughout the day.
So, the Winter Hill Gang heads into the second round decidedly on tilt. This pairing brings us Jon Byer, Peter Trinh, and Eric Perry, with me playing vs Eric. He’s on mono-black, but a very different-looking build, featuring Stone-Throwing Devils and Bad Moon. I can get behind that. This match is memorable primarily because I’m feeling great in game 1, I feel like I’ve got him on the ropes. I swing in, pop on my Giant Growth and Berserk for lethal… and he blows me out with a main deck Terror. “Yep, Terror is a card that exists in this format.” I come roaring back in the second game, but go on to drop the match after three.
Jared is also going to a third game vs Peter, while Scott reports that he’s down 0-1 and in the throes of another grindy matchup that’s not going his way. Minding my very recent lesson in team communication, I’m pretty keyed in on Jared’s games. But then, out of nowhere, over at the far end of the table, the action stops abruptly. Apparently, Jon cast Wheel of Fortune, and then proceeded to fold his hand and graveyard into his library and shuffle it up, as if he had resolved a Timetwister. We’re all just kind of sitting there in stunned silence for a moment. There’s no way to undo what has been done, and so Jon takes a game loss, sending that match to a pivotal game 3 in which Scott sticks an early Serra Angel that goes unanswered, locking up a very improbable match win. So it’s down to Jared and Peter, who run all the way to time in the round, and five turns later, they stand up for Orb flips. After a volley of maybe seven or eight consecutive flips, Peter’s Orb does a belly flop, having failed to rotate the requisite 360 degrees, and just like that, we’re sitting at 1-1 in matches, and wondering how the hell it all turned out like this.
The next round brings us Scheffenacker, Tom, and Seth Roncoroni. I’m paired against Tom, who is on… mono-black. I had actually played against Schef piloting this exact list a few nights ago on Skype, so I have a definite edge here, as I know that Tom, for example, has 4x Maze of Ith in his main deck. I’m going to have to ration my Ice Storms (I have exactly four main deck answers to Maze: Ice Storm, Ice Storm, Chaos Orb, and Mana Short, and I have access to one more Ice Storm in the sideboard). After the first game, my Whirling Dervishes come in straight away for the third time in a row, and I’m amused that I’ve already exceeded my statistical quota of mono-black opponents for the day. Definitely starting to wish those Dervishes were in the main. Toward the mid/late game, I’ve got a nigh-unstoppable Dervish already ticked up to 3/3. Tom manages to find one of his several Mazes, and then he winds up for the kicker: he taps down all five of his Swamps.
Yep, Hellfire is a reasonable out to Whirling Dervish. Tom nukes my Dervish, Elf, and Sprites, but he also takes 6 damage in the process, leaving his life total precariously low. I do eventually find my way home, which feels important here, since this is one of the matches where Scott and Jared went 1-1, and needed me to secure the team win.
At this point in the day, the action breaks for an extra ~20 minutes so that people can have adequate time to experience the wonders of Harold’s New York Deli. Easily the best feature of this tournament venue is that it is under the same roof as one of the Seven Wonders of the Pastrami World, or something to that effect, and my gosh, it does not disappoint. Scott finished his match first, so we send him to bring back the goods for the team. And the meal itself even fits the format: one pastrami sandwich costs like $35, but brings enough smoked meat, rye bread, coleslaw, and pickles to feed a hungry Team Unified squad. We immediately cease all conversation and descend into a frenzy of delighted grunts, emerging only occasionally for a swig of beer. Harold’s delivers, and the Tier 1.222 accolades (repeating of course) have been validated.
Mano’s enterprising troupe of munchkins is actively hawking Janine’s homemade cookies during the lunch hour, which is a very opportunistic and obviously correct play. We readily agree to purchase however many cookies $5 will buy, and this ends up yielding a reasonable pile of treats for the five or six folks around our table just then.
My word, these cookies. Browned butter, sea salt, chocolate chips. Some of them are a little bit medium-well, but most are just precisely à point, and they melt like heaven.
This is about the part of the show where Jared needs a minute to digest and meditate.
The fourth round has me paired up with Luke Zinnen, a familiar face and Boston Old School regular who’s made the trip down and gotten himself thrown onto a team of randoms, but their company is no less enjoyable. Aside from the obvious fact that he’s piloting a mono-black deck, this match is mostly memorable, I’m sorry to admit, for the Derelor that I cast illegally on turn 3, having failed to actually play a black source by that point in the game. I even took a photograph, because I was so excited to play the lone copy of Derelor in my deck:
Neither of us catches the error, and we play out the entire game. I only realize my mistake toward the very end, when I finally play the Underground Sea that had been sitting in my hand all the way back to the opener (Jared will attest to this; he advised me to keep the hand, and saw the Underground Sea along with the Derelor in my starting seven). Mea culpa, sorry Luke.
So, on the back of some shenanigans possibly befitting mobsters and miscreants, the Winter Hill Gang’s star continues to rise, and in the fifth round we find ourselves toe-to-toe with three hard men from the gangs of New York: DeSilva, Burkholder, and Husney. I’m paired against Blake, who is playing … one more time for the folks in the back row! … mono-black.
In one of our games, Blake opens with a true classic: Swamp, Dark Ritual, Hypnotic Specter, go. “I’ve been doing that for 26 years,” he says. I’m running a single Unsummon in my main deck, and to this point, I hadn’t seen it all day. But here I am, on the draw, and I have it, here and now, the most old school and elegant possible response to this situation. Island, Unsummon your dude, go (I’m so giddy about this, I don’t even think that I wait until his turn to cast the Unsummon). It’s an immediate 1-for-1, a virtual 2-for-1, and a tempo blowout, especially once it becomes clear that he kept a two-lander and misses his land drop on turn 3.
Meanwhile, Jared is losing a game to Evan despite a thoroughly busted opener, but Scott is doing downright supervillain-esque The Deck things to Paul, concluding their match by just taking over a game with The Hive and good old-fashioned insurmountable card advantage.
It’s been a truly strange trip, with some bad beats and zigs and zags and lucky bounces for sure, but somehow we find ourselves 4-1 in matches, heading upstairs to Table 1 for a date with Mano, Parke, and Finkel, who have just beaten Sperling’s team, and are still undefeated to this point in the day.
Now, this is exactly the moment where I’d counsel anyone else in our shoes to “act like you’ve been there before,” but the truth is, I’ve only been playing in Magic tournaments for the past three years, and this is the very first time that I’ve ever managed to make it to the top table in the final round of Swiss at an event like this. So, for me, this is an actual honor and a privilege, and the fact that the match is against some truly exceptional and revered figures (and also, Mano) makes it that much sweeter, and obviously that much more intimidating.
I’m trying my best to regulate my hype level. Is it getting hot in this room? Actually, yes, the air conditioning had been turned off for a while; this would fortunately be remedied by the middle of the first game of the round. I get myself a fresh beer, and call a brief huddle with Scott and Jared. The pep talk is exceedingly short, and it goes something like this: “They are better Magic players than we are, but we play a hell of a lot more Old School than they do. Let’s get ‘em.”
We all compare our blotchy hand stamps and take our seats. Scott is toe-to-toe with Jonny Magic, who is piloting a Tax/Tower/Millstone control deck. Jared is facing Mano, who’s on mono-black, but apparently he missed the memo that mono-black belongs in the C seat. That leaves me with Jamie, who is wielding the team’s fully-powered Atog deck.
In game 1, I manage to go off with Giant Growths and Berserks, and Jamie goes from largely unconcerned to entirely dead in a matter of seconds. Mano looks over at our game and laughs, “Just like you drew it up, right?” or something to that effect. Jamie is amused, and takes the opportunity to tell me the story of a player who he used to run in to on the New York area tournament circuit back in the day. This guy was known for playing mono-red burn decks, and he would basically hoard all of his burn cards in his hand. When he finally had lethal, he would announce his plays in rapid succession in his thick downstate accent: “Lightning Bolt, Incinerate, Fireblast, YA DEAD.”
For one game at least, at the top table of MobsterCon, my Berserk deck did the thing. “Ya dead.”
Meanwhile, Jared is also up 1-0 against Mano, and god only knows what’s happening to Scott. Jamie and I sideboard for the second game and shuffle up. Once again, I manage to get through the first few turns without any broken starts from his side, which is fortunate, but I’m not able to get any early damage through, either. A couple more turns in, I see my way to getting a pair of little green dudes on board, but on the very next turn he hits one of my 1/1 flyers with a Control Magic. It’s an overcosted solution, it’s definitely unexpected, and it stops me in my tracks. I have 3x Giant Growth in my hand and enough green mana to cast everything I’d need to cast, but my only real out here is Berserk: if I find one, he wouldn’t be able to stop me from triple-Growthing my 1/1 flyer in response to one or even two Lightning Bolts, and I could trample straight through his 1/1 flying blocker, connecting with 23 damage. After one or two more turns of topdecking through our temporary stalemate, he finds his second Control Magic (!) and steals my other guy. On the very next turn, I do rip that Berserk that I needed, but it’s one draw too late, I never get another guy on board, and we move on to game 3.
Jared has done his part, winning his match against Mano, but Finkel is clearly crushing Scott’s soul with a fistful of countermagic. It’s all on me. Unfortunately, my luck with dodging broken starts from the Atog deck has run out, and Jamie absolutely smokes me in a very brief final game.
As we pack up our things, he shares some quick thoughts about the format, the event, and the general vibe in the room. My overall impression of Jamie is that he is a very functional adult human being who has his shit together, and therefore probably spends most of his time at his job, with his family, and/or generally pursuing other real life activities these days. It seems like he doesn’t get a ton of time to play Magic in the way that he used to, and he essentially tells me that playing Old School at a tournament organized by his friends is a perfect way to spend some of the precious time that he actually does get to devote to the game. Some of the most enfranchised Old School players will often tell you that Old School is a joke, and you either get it or you don’t. Jamie definitely gets the joke, and I’m glad that I finally had the opportunity to meet him and share a few games.
So the Winter Hill Gang ends the day 4-2 in matches, having come tantalizingly close to vanquishing the end boss, but alas, no cigar. Each of us receives a stamped 4th Edition Mind Twist for our troubles. I somehow also win an incredible altered card from the charity raffle: an Atog wearing a fedora and a pinstripe suit, hand-painted by Daniel Anschutz. Mano announces that, net of expenses, we’ve raised something like $500 for HomeFront NJ, his family’s charity of choice. This feels like a slam dunk.
It’s about 7:30pm, and the main event is over, but Jeff White is standing by with unopened boxes of Tempest, Stronghold, and Exodus, and somehow there are still a whole bunch of those browned butter chocolate chip cookies left over. It’s time to fire a Rath Cycle draft. The entry fee is a steep $100 per person, but the obvious negative EV at face value absolutely pales in comparison to the premium I’d put on the experience of drafting with Mano’s buddies (all thoroughly seasoned Limited aficionados, to a man), combined with the fact that we’ll be opening cards printed in actual 1997. When else would I get to do something like this?
We tear through the draft, fueled by the sweet smell of cardboard that has been unspoiled by the ages. I didn’t play during this time period in Magic’s history, which unfortunately means that I have basically zero nostalgia for these cards. It also means that I am in the position of needing to evaluate every single one of them from scratch (as Matt Gazda puts it, “Dave’s over here reading Tempest commons like they’re Tolstoy”). The creatures seem like they’re mostly terrible, and in general, the spells are even worse. I try to draft dudes with evasion, a reasonable curve, and some meaningful ways to interact with the opponent’s creatures. So, basically, Limited 101.
And truthfully, in terms of actual EV, I’m making out a lot better than most. Andrew, sitting to my right, pulls an Intuition, and passes me an Ancient Tomb, which I snap off immediately. And in my Stronghold pack, I find a Volrath’s Stronghold. I’m already in black, so that one gets windmill slammed as well. There are a couple other lottery winners in the room: Matt, sitting to my left, opens a Sliver Queen, and rumors are spreading quickly through the room that Paul DeSilva pulled a Mox Diamond over in the other pod.
Minutes later, I’ve put together what feels like a more or less reasonable pile of mostly small and evasive black and red creatures, with a little bit of burn and some other tricks to help them get through. It seems unfortunately light on 2-drops, and I have no idea about how slow or fast the format is, or really anything about the environment at all. Anyway, for the curious:
I end up getting paired with Mano, who has also drafted black and red, but more importantly, he’s pretty hungry and hasn’t had time to visit Harold’s yet. The restaurant will be closing in about 20 minutes, so we agree to postpone our match and head over there to get this man some goddamn pastrami. And for my part, I’m perfectly fine with going halfsies on another glorious pile of smoked meat today. Mano steps up to the counter and orders the same $35 sandwich that Scott and Jared and I had shared earlier, except he specifies that he wants the meat sliced thin. I wasn’t aware that was something a person could do. We bring our paper bag full of meat and rye bread back to the event room and dig in. The verdict: thin-sliced is absolutely the way to go, to the point where it’s quite possibly the only correct play. Just file that away for next time, I guess.
Mano and I play out our Tempest draft match, which is kind of a mirror, except that he has this weird terrible red version of Prodigal Sorcerer where you have to discard a card at random every time you want to use the ping ability. As bad as it is, it’s surprisingly effective against my little squad of x/1 Shadow creatures. The next round I’m in the 0-1 bracket, where you basically choose your own opponent because none of this really matters. So I sit down with Svante, and we play three games of Rath Cycle Limited, in which he mostly crushes my guys with an artifact called Bullwhip and some insane burn spell
with Buyback “with the Buyback” that just takes over the late game. Our match comes to a close, and at last, against all odds, I’ve had my fill of Magic: The Gathering for one day.
Before too long, it’s 11pm and we’re getting kicked out of the banquet hall. A group of us spends some more time shooting the shit and hanging out on those ivory-colored faux leather sofas in the lobby. Our asses have finally taken their place in the well-worn ruts of history at the E Hotel Banquet & Conference Center in Edison, New Jersey. I say goodnight to my friends, because I have a flight back to Boston the next morning.
Flying out of Newark at 9am on Sunday means that I’ll miss the BBQ after-party at Mano’s house, but it also means that I’ll gain a full day to spend with my wife and daughter in Boston. This seems particularly important in light of the fact that I’m less than 72 hours away from leaving home again to travel to Virginia for SCGCON, by way of a work trip to Washington D.C. on Wednesday. Finding and maintaining a reasonable balance between family, work, and the hobby that’s engulfed so much of my time and attention these last few years continues to be a challenge for me, and this particular week, while certainly awesome on many levels, is a pretty poor example of keeping that balance. I remind myself that I won’t be doing any overnight travel for Magic again for at least four or five months, and that things will mostly quiet down over the summer. Mostly. I try to be as present as possible during our family date in Boston: the Public Garden, Bruins jerseys on the ducklings, my daughter’s first ride on the swan boats, a long walk down the Comm Ave mall, a lazy late lunch/early dinner at the far end of Back Bay (lobster and chowder, obviously). No alcohol; I need at least one or two days to detox.
Later that night, I’m taking apart my Team Unified deck, unsleeving and re-sleeving some Alpha cards, and beginning the process of haggling with Scott and Will M. over what decks we should all play in Roanoke. Having seen some of the results from EC rules tournaments over the past six months, we’ve convinced each other that Workshop decks are completely busted in half. Will has been making some minor tweaks to the list that he used to take down Urza’s Chalice back in January. The original inspiration for this deck was Martin Berlin’s 2nd place finish at the Fishliver Oil Cup EC rules event, held in Italy last October, and it’s honestly not your father’s 93/94 Workshops deck. The central thesis here is that Icy Manipulator is basically the best possible thing you can cast off a Mishra’s Workshop, and together with Copy Artifact, Winter Orb, and a grip full of Strip Mines, you can pursue a comprehensive mana denial strategy while incidentally smashing face with gigantic robots.
I’ve basically decided that I want to see for myself what all of the fuss is about with this Workshops archetype, and after five straight months of piloting nothing but very budget aggro decks (a story in and of itself, best left for another time), I’m feeling entirely ready to smash face with a fully powered, top-tier monstrosity. We’ve already agreed that between the three of us, we’re bringing Workshops, Workshops, and The Deck to this showdown in the Star City. Scott has been getting a lot of practice with his Jayemdae Tomes over the last few weeks, so he opts to stick with The Deck, and graciously allows me to borrow his playset of Mishra’s Workshops for the occasion.
All of this is finally straightened out by Tuesday night, I think, leaving me with basically 36 hours to get into the headspace necessary to inhabit a powerful deck that I know more or less nothing about. I am definitely excited about it, since I’ve never played with Workshops before, but again, remember that I am a thoroughly compulsive playtester when it comes to Old School. The games that I play in the days and weeks (and sometimes months) before a tournament are actually more important to me than the tournament itself, sort of akin to prepping for a triathlon or something. The process of training is its own reward; the journey is the destination.
The rub here is that I am almost entirely unable to just go to a tournament and pilot a deck based only on theorycrafting. Some of my friends like to do this, or even prefer it; I can’t. Some of my friends goldfish their lists at their desks or their kitchen tables at home; I can’t. Some of my friends even goldfish their brews vs other decks virtually, using two different browser instances of Manastack; I promise you that I can’t. The thought of piloting Berlin Shops in Roanoke on basically zero reps is generating some actual anxiety.
So, late on Tuesday night, I have the deck sleeved up and assembled with proxied Workshops. It’s pushing 11pm, and I’ve got a 5am wake-up for my flight to Virginia the next morning, but here I am, looking for a pick-up match on Skype. Luckily, my friend Ryan Rudolph is up to the task, so we shuffle up.
Jesus, this deck just plays itself. I post a quick 2-0, and we play a third game that’s much more back-and-forth, but I manage to pull that one out as well. I thank Ryan profusely, maybe even apologize a little, and go to bed thinking about what I’ve gotten myself in to.
5am arrives quickly, and I’m off to Washington for a full day of meetings or whatever at my company’s D.C. office. The plan is to head right back to National after work, rent a car, pick up Will at the Alexandria Amtrak station, and hopefully make it to Roanoke by about 11pm.
This all goes off basically without a hitch. I arrive at the train station with only about 10 minutes to burn. Will hops into the car, I crank up Edgar Winter Group’s Frankenstein, and I also point out the impressive Masonic temple up on the hill in front of us, Alexandria’s major landmark. (Not quite the Library of Alexandria, but according to Wikipedia it’s actually modeled after the ancient Lighthouse of Alexandria. Again, look it up.)
The next four hours can only be described as a classic road trip, on par with Fozzie and Kermit in the Studebaker. Our journey takes us up into the foothills, across the Shenandoah River, and finally onto I-81 through western Virginia. It’s a drive I’ve always wanted to take, with views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, rolling farmland, and hillsides dotted with caverns. I’ll gladly add this to the list of places that Magic has taken me, and I hope to get back to the area someday to make a proper visit to Shenandoah National Park, Skyline Drive, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and a few of the little towns that we whizzed past that evening.
Will puts on some John Denver, and we occupy ourselves by talking through the game plan for Workshops: the approach of the deck, the specific card choices and roles of each card, our sideboarding plans. We also spend maybe 45 minutes drawing sample hands and making keep/mull decisions using the London Mulligan rules, which we’ll be using for the first time at this tournament. Experimenting with the London Mulligan is provoking some interesting discussions about how we’d rank the value of specific cards in the opening seven, so the exercise seems well worth it. The overall approach that Will is trying to communicate to me is that the aggregate power of cards in this deck is so high that a hand with anything less than a very worthwhile play on turn 1 is not a keep. This is not at all intuitive for me, but I think I’m starting to get it.
After stopping off in Harrisonburg for a beer and a burger, we drive the remaining hour and a half or so to Roanoke, where Scott has already checked in to the hotel. I’m absolutely beat after around 700 miles of travel on the day, so I’m grateful to be getting to sleep. Scott and Will jam a few practice games, and we call it a night.
The next morning, we head to town for a proper breakfast at Scrambled, a great little spot in downtown Roanoke, which, as it turns out, is downright charming. The modest grid of streets surrounding the railroad station is immaculate and well-maintained, with really nice planters of hibiscus and other greenery lining the edges of the marketplace, and a couple of textbook art deco office towers inhabited by regional banks and insurance companies. A strong core of locally-owned shops and restaurants are actively imparting a dynamic energy to the center of town; this is a Thursday morning, and it’s genuinely exciting to be here.
The weather is quite pleasant and we’ve got more than an hour to kill before the tournament venue opens, so we decide to make the 10-minute drive from downtown Roanoke up to the Mill Mountain Star, an unmistakable landmark in the area, complete with an overlook that provides a commanding view of the city and the Blue Ridge Mountains. It’s also just purely irresistible Americana, a mid-20th century neon masterpiece.
While we’re taking in the sights and posing for the mandatory selfie, Will strikes up a conversation with a total stranger, a fellow pilgrim who’s also made the journey to the top of the mount. His name is Chris, he’s from Danville, and he’s in town on business. He immediately starts asking questions about the Old School-related patches and pins on Will’s vest. We provide the usual answers: oh, we play a game called Magic: The Gathering, we’re in town for a tournament, we only play with cards from 1993 and 1994, and yes, it’s all very esoteric. But Chris gets excited, he says he doesn’t know a lot about the cards but he has a big Rubbermaid tub of them at home that he bought for $10 at a garage sale or something. He also insists on taking a selfie with the three of us, which he immediately posts to Facebook. I guess we’ve made an impression.
Back in town, we’ve parked at the venue and we’re already running into Old School friends in the parking lot, James and Rich of the Magical Hacks are here from the Carolinas, and we also see Nick and Stephen, aka “the Fellwar Stoners” of greater D.C./northern Virginia. Scott and Will and I duck into the coffee shop next door to get just a little bit more caffeine. I grab some table space to quickly re-sleeve my deck and take a deck photo, now with Scott’s Workshops actually in my possession:
We head next door to the tournament venue, 202 Social House, which immediately makes an impression on me because it’s an absolutely perfect space for this event. We have the entire upstairs floor to ourselves, with ample elbow room for our group (46 players in total). We have our own bar with dedicated staff, and access to the full menu from the kitchen. The place is also super-clean, there’s a well-functioning HVAC system, and it even has windows looking out over the streets and picturesque marketplace below. Jaco has teamed up directly with StarCityGames to put on the event, and SCG has sent over an extra guy to help staff it, along with some equipment for generating the pairings and all of that. In terms of tournament environment and logistical rigor, it does not get better than this, folks. Jaco kicks things off with the usual slate of announcements, the pairings go out, and we’re off and running.
In the first round I meet Jon Dittert, a man from Lexington, Kentucky who’s on a very fast Goblins list. Despite getting an explosive start with a Mind Twist for 4 on the opening turn, I manage to drop the first game, losing in no small part to my own tapped Mana Vault and burn damage from a Su-Chi that Jon hit with a Goblin Grenade. Well-struck, Jon. I don’t remember much about the next two games, but fortunately Jon has us covered: for the full Rashomon experience, you can check out his write-up of the event here. It was great to welcome him to the format, and more importantly, to the Old School community, and I hope we hear more of his adventures going forward.
The second round pairings come down, and it’s already a no-win situation for our little team: Will and I are paired together, so it’s time to play the mirror. I figured that this would happen at some point, but I had truly hoped that it would be at Table 1 in the final round, just like we drew it up. Instead, here we are in the very early offing, both at 1-0, and pretty unhappy that only one of us will make it out of this one alive. It really is a complete mirror; again, this is his list, so the decks are virtually identical, 74 out of 75 cards. He knows the archetype inside and out in multiple formats, whereas I plainly don’t know my ass from my elbow here, especially when it comes to the mirror. Minutes later, I’m 1-1 in matches, and back at the bar with plenty of time to conduct a thorough review of the local beer options.
For round three, I have the pleasure of sharing a match in person with Jason Collins, who I’ve known for three years, going back to our games in the very early days of the 93/94 Skype community. Roanoke is only about an hour away from where Jason lives along the I-81 corridor in Virginia, so he’s day-tripping it, and we joke about how nice it is of Jaco to organize a proper Old School event so close to home for him. He’s on a very, very tuned Weenie Geddon type brew, with tiny splashes in blue and green for a few choice spells like Sylvan Library. Post-board I have 3x Gloom and 2x The Abyss in my deck, and some rough hands push me into mull-to-five territory, so I decide to see exactly what this London Mulligan can do for me. On the mull to four I have basically like land, Mox, Lotus, Gloom, so I have more or less “done the thing” and found my super-narrow hate card with the London Mulligan for the first time. The turn 1 Gloom definitely slows him down, but I’m not able to develop at all after that, and meanwhile he’s hitting me with a Factory every turn. A couple turns later, he taps down four mana and I say something like, “oh that’s cute, are you gonna play a one-drop? Savannah Lions?” and he just shakes his head and goes, “nope! Azure Drake.”
This prompts an immediate high-five from me, and he gets there shortly with the Factory and a blue 2/4 flyer that he’s easily able to cast while laughing at my post-board hate. The card is underrated, and it would be even more powerful if it weren’t so easily distracted.
At this point, having fallen to 1-2 in matches, I’m beginning to deeply regret my decision to make today the day that I would give Workshops a spin for the first time in my Old School career. And of course, Jaco has already rubbed in a little bit of salt by joking that me, Scott, and Will are a bunch of try-hards on soft decks, which has the unfortunate virtue of being 100% true. I head back to the bar, order another Devil’s Backbone Vienna, and dust myself off for the next round.
My fourth opponent for the day is Nick Batista of the Fellwar Stoners, the DC-area tandem made up of Nick and his buddy Steve Preston. Nick is one of the true spicers on the East Coast, generally on a level with the Andy Baqueros and Paul Kovalovs of the world, and his list today involves mashing up Jaco’s patented Bazaar aggro tech with a UW Geddon shell. A little more spiky than I was expecting, perhaps, but I’m in no position to complain, and I’m glad that Nick came to ball. Unfortunately for him, the Shops deck roars to life here, and I pick up the match win.
Coming into round five, I’m sitting at 2-2 and dreading the prospect of playing either Scott (x-2 at this point on The Deck) or Michael Scheffenacker (x-2 on Workshops). They are both very skilled pilots with their weapons of choice, but mostly I am hoping to dodge them because they are thoroughly known quantities to me at this point, and I travel to these things in hopes of throwing down with players from other regions who I haven’t already met. So of course, the pairings drop and I’ve drawn Schef, and we sit ourselves down for another mirror match. Schef’s list is a bit different though: notably, it has Juggernauts, and he explains that he’s way more into 4-drop robots than 6-drop robots in this environment. The most sophisticated thought about Workshops that I can contribute to our conversation basically just boils down to the Berlin Conjecture, which is, in short, that Icy Manipulator is a really fucking good card. Schef agrees that he should probably go up from 3 Icy in his current build to 4 Icy for next time.
My second game against Schef presents another London Mulligan opportunity. Remembering that Will had counseled me not to keep a hand without a solid turn 1 play, I’ve thrown a couple hands back, and find myself yet again in the purgatory of aggressive mulling. On the mull to 4, I strike gold: Timetwister and some artifact mana to help cast it on turn 2. This combination does have the effect of pulling me back into a game that I would have no real business being in after mulling to 4 under any previous mulligan regime, which is something.
Unfortunately for me, Schef is able to stick several threats after that Twister, and I’m still scrambling to do anything relevant. Workshops is really a deck that always needs to throw down a couple massive question marks that ask for immediate answers, as if to say, “hey, I have two or three giant robots, what are you gonna do about it?” You want to be the questioner instead of the answerer, and overall I found that while the deck can muster very strong questions, it’s pretty lacking in the interactivity department when things are not going your way.
So now I’m sitting at x-3, my dreams of glory in the Star City fully dashed, but hell, my friends are here, there’s beer to drink, and I still have a ton to learn about this deck, and for that matter, about the format as a whole.
My next match is against Matt Deering, a New England Old School member who’s made the trip all the way from Bangor. Having never met him in person, I immediately provide him with a NEOS deck box sticker and a Deathgrip pin from the small pile left over from Hartford a couple months ago. He’s piloting a version of what we call Spice Rack on the East Coast, pretty similar to Mano’s list that took down LOBSTERCON last year, except a little heavier in white for access to full playsets of Swords and Disenchants in his 75. I manage to take this match, moving back up to .500 on the day.
I circle up with Scott and Will to compare notes. They’re both x-2 heading into the final round, but the real story of the day is what Vintage rock star Joe Brennan has been doing with The Deck. Apparently, Will had sent Joe two lists a couple of days ago: slightly different builds of The Deck for EC rules, previously piloted by Matt Slack and Justin Franks. Joe took those lists, settled on a configuration to his own liking, brought it to Roanoke, and so far he’s 6-0 on the day, and an incredible 12-0 in games. I have to admit that there’s something oddly comforting about this. We’re at a moment in the contemporary Old School scene where people are freaking out about the flavor of the week, whether it’s Atog or Workshops or Stasis or whatever-the-hell, but a truly talented player from outside of the Old School clubhouse can still come in and absolutely wreck some fools with the pile that most of us like to pretend doesn’t exist.
The final round of Swiss+1 has me paired with Wayne Johnston from Lafayette, Indiana. He’s on a low-curve Pink Weenie deck, and in game 1, he is making Crusade look like a damn good card. I’m over here casting Su-Chis, and with a couple Crusades on board, some dudes with first strike, and the threat of Javelineer activations, I have literally no favorable blocks or attacks. I’ve been pretty dismissive of White Knight lately in formats where Fallen Empires is allowed, but having first strike “always on” is kind of an underrated feature that doesn’t get mentioned when people compare the card with Order of Leitbur. I dunno, just something to keep in mind. Wayne rides his 4/4 Knights all the way to victory in our first game, and then I bring my Glooms in from the board. Game 3, in particular, ends up being an absolute non-game thanks to Gloom.
So the curtain falls on the SCGCON Old School event, and our little team of would-be world beaters is a combined 13-8 on the day. Will manages 4th place overall on breakers:
Joe Brennan takes top honors, having pitched a shut-out, a perfect 14-0 in games.
As we’re packing up, there’s talk of an all-you-can-eat sushi place just outside of town. We decide to follow the action to dinner with the Hacks squad, along with Jaco and Jerry Yang, who Will seems to know from the Vintage circuit.
When we arrive at Sakura #9, the well-regarded Japanese eatery out by the airport, it’s clear that it’s in a building that’s been converted from what might have been a failed Wendy’s franchise in a former life. The drive-thru window is not only still intact but actually in use: you can pull up with your car, order up some chirashi and seaweed salad to go, grab your dinner and be on your way without your feet touching the ground. One or more of the Hacks has been here before, so we’re told that the thing to get is the $20 special, which entitles you to all the sushi you could ask for from the set menu. This sounds great. Each of us puts in for a bunch of nigiri and specialty rolls with names like “Angry Dragon” and “Sexy Lady,” our drinks arrive, and we start hashing out the day’s events.
As Scott and I carefully pour out a carafe of hot sake – remember not to pour your own – Will launches into an endless tale about that time in college when he got trashed, passed out in a limousine, and later enlisted the help of a very responsive locksmith to unintentionally break into a stranger’s apartment. I’ve just summarized the entire episode in two dozen words, but it’s a story that grew to fill the space it needed to occupy, kind of like a well-fed goldfish. As the unsolicited saga of a Villanova undergrad meanders to its uneven conclusion, it’s becoming increasingly clear that something might be up with the sushi orders. Some of the plates brought to the table are missing key items that people had asked for, and others, like mine, for example, are missing entirely. We flag down the harried waitstaff a couple times, re-order as much as we can, and in the meantime, I’m invited to scavenge a couple pieces of maki from Will, Jaco, and Scott. So, everybody eats, at least.
And honestly, the food itself is almost besides the point. The after-tournament dinner is consistently my favorite part of any Old School outing. Getting the chance to spend actual time in real life with people in the community, instead of just the random and shallow interactions on Facebook or Twitter or Discord, is pure gold. We hear about Jerry’s current exploits on the Appalachian Trail (there’s an app for that), from which he has made a pit-stop this weekend to hang with friends at SCGCON, which just happened to be in the neighboring town from his walk. Jaco talks about his singleton 5-color aggro deck from SoloCon, and also shares that the Lords have a dedicated haiku-only channel on their Discord server. Even Will’s elaborate story of college-age nonsense provides some additional texture to the man. I’m fortunate enough to be able to play Old School practically whenever I want, but these moments, the weird nuggets and genuine interactions, these are the things that make traveling to events worthwhile, at least for me.
We reach a point in the dinner where we’re left with basically zero certainty about which food orders in particular may or may not actually be on the way, so Scott and I clear off some table space, unfurl the Spellground, and play an impromptu best-of-five with our 40-card Alpha decks. Having played enough of the mono-blue Psychic Venom vs UR Psychic Venom match-up in New Jersey six nights ago, this time I’ve brought a low-curve RG Aggro list with 14 lands, 5 Llanowar Elves, 6 Sprites, 4 Bears, 3 Orcs, 1 Artillery, 2 Oriflamme, and 5 Lightning Bolts. Scott’s deck is mostly Wall of Air and Prodigal Sorcerers, and main deck Blue Elemental Blasts for some reason, so this is generally a pretty tough match-up for me, but I manage to get under his skin a couple times, thanks in no small part to the insane variance of a no-mulligan format where the player who goes first also gets to draw. Aside from the fun of coining new names for the format every couple weeks (this week’s name is “Gen Con ‘93” by the way; calling it “Alpha Card 40” or “Deckmaster” is totally passé), most of us agree that it’s a funny way to kill a little bit of time, useful as a palate cleanser, or like an after-dinner drink. The digestif of Old School formats, if you will.
— Rich Sponholz IRL (@The_Spoonerman) June 7, 2019
Meanwhile, James is on a warpath over at the sushi counter. We still haven’t gotten most of what we (repeatedly) ordered, a lot of what was brought to the table was incorrect, and seriously, why are the cuts of fish so damn small? But, truly, let it never be said that a Magical Hack won’t go to bat for you in your time of need.
After damn near two and a half hours of this sushi spectacular, my comrades and I agree that it’s time to go back into Roanoke for a decent stiff drink. We find ourselves at Stellina, a tiny bar that’s in sort of a hidden space within a restaurant called Fortunato. The room is decorated with some jungle woman pin-up art and a couple portraits of Burt Reynolds. All of us separately order the exact same drink, a riff on a Manhattan. The bartender finds this amusing (and he’s a Magic player, too, as it turns out). Once we’ve properly recovered from dinner and the events of the day, we head back to the hotel and record about 90 minutes for All Tings Considered. Will and Scott start their prep for the Vintage Power 9 series event at SCGCON, while I ruminate on the whirlwind of the past seven days.
What have I learned from back-to-back tournaments, and dozens of hours of travel in planes, trains, and automobiles? Traveling for Old School is always worth it. Play the Magic you love. Bring a deck that’s worn-in like an old baseball mitt. If you’re out to prove something with a chip on your shoulder, you’re gonna have a bad time, but if you’re in it to have fun, there’s no way you can lose. Respect the possibility that your opponent might have a Terror in game 1. Make sure to get the thin-sliced. Old School players may have their little differences and their internecine squabbles (mostly on Facebook), but we are much more alike than we are unalike, especially when it’s time to just sit down and jam. So sit down and jam. Plan your next trip. And leave the rest behind (or, if you prefer: Leave the gun, take the cannoli).
And now, in honor of the Lords of the Pit, and in the tradition of Peter King, I will wrap it up with this:
Unfulfilled orders, and worse:
For the #mtgunderground,