A voice cut through the playground chatter as though I had Spidey’s spider sense.
“I’ll attack you with my Birds of Paradise.”
My head swiveled around, searching for the voice’s origin and what it was referring to. It was difficult to see much of anything through all the bodies rushing out onto the playground for thirty minutes of childhood joy. As the crowd thinned, I caught a flickering glimpse of two figures sitting on the pavement with what looked like playing cards between them.
As I approached, I noticed the cards were unlike anything I had ever seen before—neither playing cards nor sports cards for trading.
“I’ll block with my Wall of Wood.”
“You can’t do that. It doesn’t fly, and my Birds of Paradise has flying.”
I asked a bystander what that meant. As the words tumbled out of his mouth, I slowly slipped into a world I would never escape from.
My neighbor Chris and I had gained life, attacked with a few giant monsters, and then sat back, hoping to draw an even bigger creature as the battlefield became clogged with bodies. Our one-hundred-fifty-card decks contained creatures and life-gain. That was all that mattered.
Removal? What was that?
Two hours, a bajillion turns, and two bajillion creatures later, I finally had a winning board position.
I swung with everything.
Chris took a few minutes to arrange blocks, unsure whether he was doomed or whether I had made a mistake. I waited patiently, occasionally glancing at the card in my hand.
When he was done, we began tallying up the results; this creature was dead, this one regenerated, and so on.
“How much damage is left over?”
“I end up dealing 34 damage to you.” I answer.
“I’m at 33. Good game.”
I put up my hand to stop him from scooping up his cards. “Wait a second . . . ”
That’s when I cast the Fog in my hand and flashed a giant smile.
I wasn’t collecting Magic cards these days, but I still had a larger collection than most of my friends thanks to a childhood fixation years before that saw me spend every penny of my allowance on the game I loved. Yet, with all of that, I still wasn’t able to beat Matt.
Today was going to be the day I crushed him into dust. I was going to sit down and build a deck I knew could break his black and red monstrosity.
I finally understood the idea that decks were stronger if they were the minimum sixty cards, and I had cards that I knew could stop him. I just had to find the right combination.
His deck dealt damage at a staggering pace compared to decks we had played with in the past. Cheap, repeatable life-gain was a must.
He had cards that hurt me if I attacked. Strong, defensive, and evasive creatures that could attack only when needed were in.
This card named Winter Orb seemed good against him. If he couldn’t tap his lands, he wasn’t going to be able to cast all of those spells that were good against me. I could put down one of my defensive creatures, cast Winter Orb, and then slowly beat him to 0.
The deck began to take shape.
After our grueling—but spectacular—bike ride through the forests outside of Burlington, we locked our bikes up on Church Street and began our annual ritual.
Every year, I would invite my closest friends up to my family’s cabin on Lake Champlain, and we would enjoy a week of the outdoors, relaxation, and boating, but the crème de la crème was our trip into Burlington. It’s a beautiful town to visit, with colonial architecture and great restaurants, but the biggest attraction was a store named Quarterstaff Games.
That’s where we went immediately after the bike ride.
A cute girl was behind the counter, and I fell into flirting with her as we looked around. She returned the playful attitude, and then hit us all with a sack of cement.
“Do you want to see something cool? The owner doesn’t like showing customers this because she’s not selling it, but I think you guys would enjoy it.”
Up came her hand from behind the counter with a booster box of Legends, one of the oldest sets in Magic’s history.
I was busy gluing cut water bottles to each other as an experiment. My theory suggested that even though they were thin plastic, their shape—and any water put in them—would reduce noise in large or sparse spaces significantly. I was confidant it would work, if only there was a glue that actually allowed for plastic-on-plastic adhesion.
“I’ve heard you play Magic.”
Instead of talking about my troubles with the glue, Professor was asking about games.
“I used to. I stopped playing in high school.”
“My game store is starting up Magic events. You should come sometime.”
He paused a second, in thought, “We play a lot of different things; Magic, Warhammer, Legend of the Five Rings, minis, and board games on the weekend. You’re more than welcome to come for any of them.”
“Thanks, Professor. Whereabouts is it?”
“In Abington. It’s a short walk from the R8 Roslyn Station, or there’s a bus that ends up somewhere in the neighborhood.”
“I’m not sure if I’ll have time in the next couple of months, but I’ll see what I can do.”
We were all dead tired, as often happens after an hour plus of playing Ultimate. I grabbed my water bottle, took a long swig, and then dropped my tired body onto the ground next to my bag.
“Hey, B. You wanna sling some cardboard?”
I looked at my buddy Flav. Did he just say what I think he did?
“Come on, man.” Flav tapped his arm as though he were getting ready for a needle.
This just confused me more. My friends don’t do drugs, and my mind is too tired to think of ambiguous meanings.
“I heard you play Magic.” He finally laid it out loud and clear for me to understand.
“Yea, dude. Knapp, Petey, and I draft on the weekends.
“You want in?”
“Uhh . . . Let me just call the girl to let her know.”
I scooped up my cards to his massive army.
It hurt losing the first round of the tournament, but it wasn’t that big of a deal. I was having fun just playing my rogue concoction and watching my opponent’s face when I beat down with literal Rogues.
I flipped over the Damnation on top of my deck to show my opponent he had won just in time. My Japanese was still in its beginning stages, but any Magic player could understand what I meant.
Wait. Why was he calling a judge?
Oh no . . . This is a Block tournament, isn’t it? I forgot Block is different than Standard!
I think I know what he’s explaining to the judge right now.
The judge is gesturing me away from the table. This can’t be good.
A back “room”? Even worse!
I have no clue what the judge is saying.
My Damnation? Take it out of the deck? Sure, that makes sense.
All right, just smile and nod. I know I’ll get some sort of penalty for this, but it doesn’t sound like I’m out of the tournament.
And we’re all done. Time to go tell my friends how idiotic I was.
I had been debating going to his wedding party for days. I had hauled slacks, a shirt, and tie all over China just in case I decided to go. It was time to man up.
I looked over at James sitting in the window seat. “Should I go?”
“Sounds like you should man, and it’ll be a blast. But work tomorrow. That’s rough.”
He summed up my thoughts succinctly.
I needed to go if I had any hope of solidifying my relationship with Dai. He was a great guy, but he just didn’t come to Magic events enough to consider him a good friend. And then there was that time in February when I had bailed . . .
I recalculated times in my head. We flew in at 3:30. That left more than enough time to make it to the party, but getting home . . .
Party starts at 6:00; it’ll probably go for two or three hours; my last train leaves Tokyo Station at 9:15; it takes a good thirty minutes to make it to Tokyo Station from the party.
I could make it without skipping out early on the party, but I wouldn’t make it home until midnight. With work the next day . . .
“Screw it! I’m going.”
It all started with a simple article on Dakkon Blackblade.
I had liked the card since I was a kid, buying Chronicles packs because they were the cheapest my store sold. The idea of set power and theme didn’t occur to me back then.
Now, here was a column devoted to telling stories like Dakkon’s, digging into the kernels of flavor hidden all over Magic’s history. Even better, they were looking for a writer to keep it going!
I had really gotten into writing while in Japan. Not only was it a great way to keep in touch with friends and family back home, but it was fun. It was the first time I associated writing with fun. High school had trained me to believe writing consisted of reading books you didn’t enjoy for research purposes, taking notes for citations you’d never use, and then trying to make it all fit into an idea you had solely because you were supposed to say something.
Here was opportunity knocking at my door, providing me an outlet to see just how far I could take this pleasure.
I sat down and started writing out an e-mail.
Arriving home after a long and arduous day of travel, you open the door to your small hovel. As you step into the dark entrance, the light behind you strikes a large, tattered envelope lying on the floor . . .
The chatter and questions my comment had made died down.
“Look, I’m not advocating you go sleep on the job.” I tried to restore some semblance of responsibility without contradicting myself.
“My point is, those hours—and yes, sometimes days—of downtime can be used in socially acceptable ways without you resorting to Facebook or video games in the teachers’ office.”
All right, Brendan, time to get off this subject. “Sleeping, while not ideal, is something teachers at some schools do on occasion, and it’s something that may help you mentally.”
“There are a lot of things beyond your schools that can help you keep your sanity as well.” The whispers on sleeping were gone, and people were back to paying attention, at least all of the ones who cared to pay attention in the first place.
“Try finding a hobby or activity you did back home, and spend some time each week doing that. You’ll be surprised at where that can lead.”
“Personally, I tried to find an Ultimate team. When I found out I’d have to ride the train an hour and a half each way to play with anyone, I tossed that.”
“So, I took my second choice: Magic: The Gathering.” A wave of reactions came back—curiosity, condescension, humor, and respect all reached my eyes and ears.
Good, this is what I expected. Let’s hit them again.
“Choosing to play Magic in Japan changed my life.”
This time, outright laughter and comments rang out. “Look, berate the game with its stereotypes all you want, but I mean what I said. I found good friends, great experiences, some awesome places, and my fiancé all through my decision to play Magic here.”
“Try finding that familiar territory for yourself, and . . . ”
I sat down to start writing an article. There was no rush. I had a couple in the process of being completed. I was covered for the next couple of weeks.
It was time I told another story.
What would an article on how I started playing Magic look like?
It’s a question we all ask each other as we shuffle up for Game 2: “So, how’d/when’d you start?” It’s a simple question, and I’ve heard so many answers to it over the years—in multiple languages.
What would mine look like if I had more than a distracted minute between games?
I set my fingers to the keyboard and began to type.