Tricks of the Trade: Introduction and Round-Up

Editor’s Note: Welcome to Tricks of the Trade, Tom Dawson’s new col­umn on all things good about Magic: The Gathering! To kick things off, Tom pro­posed one of our world-famous round-ups to lead into the unfath­omably deep sub­ject that is M:tG, and you can con­sid­er this a sort of back­door pilot for Tom’s col­umn. The ques­tions posed were as fol­lows:

Who got you into the game, and how?

What is it about the game that orig­i­nal­ly caught your inter­est?

Do you still play? If so, what sort of decks do you run?

Share a favourite story, anec­dote, or even a ran­dom piece of triv­ia you enjoy

Well, the results are in, and hope­ful­ly our thoughts on the mat­ter will spark some dis­cus­sion, as well as whet your appetite for what’s to come with this excit­ing new fea­ture on the Geek!

Tom Dawson:

Who got you into the game, and how?
For me this was my buddy Steve, who picked it up from a mutu­al friend. It began with what I now recog­nise as a typ­i­cal cycle of events; one per­son dis­cov­ers the game, and is round­ly mocked by his or her friends, because we may be nerds but Magic is geeky even by our stan­dards. After a while, this adopter per­suades their friends to try the game. Those friends reluc­tant­ly agree, usu­al­ly out of bore­dom, and that’s all it takes for the virus to pass onto a new host. At this point, the cycle begins again, with the card­board crack lay­ing claim to anoth­er dis­ci­ple. In my case, it only took two games before Magic had its hooks direct­ly into my heart.

What is it about the game that orig­i­nal­ly caught your inter­est?
I dis­tinct­ly remem­ber the moment that Magic took hold of me. My first game was a floun­der­ing affair, fre­quent­ly punc­tu­at­ed by my “what hap­pens if” or “how do I” queries and the resul­tant expla­na­tion. Suffice to say I lost, and lost hard. By the time we moved on to a sec­ond match I felt con­fi­dent I had the basics down, and it was a slight­ly more even duel, albeit weight­ed by the decks in play. While Steve was play­ing his at-the-time prized (in hind­sight of course, we are both in agree­ment that it was a fair­ly use­less deck) mono-black deck, into which he had put both time and thought as well as the money he spent buy­ing indi­vid­ual — and awe­some — cards, I was using his spare deck, an Izzet red/blue num­ber fresh from the Duel Deck and then bulked out with what­ev­er extra cards he had lying around. The match itself had devolved into a slugfest, both of us scram­bling for some way to bat­ter past the oth­er’s defences for a final strike. Steve found it first, drop­ping the ter­ri­fy­ing look­ing Reaper from the Abyss  onto a bat­tle­field pop­u­lat­ed only by my com­pa­ra­bly pathet­ic Goblin Electromancer, and sud­den­ly all I could hear was the faint sound of a fat lady singing.

Despondently review­ing the cards in my hand, I had a light­bulb moment. What if instead of play­ing as I had been, trad­ing blows and dam­age and crea­tures, I tried some­thing new? It was the first time I looked at my cards and con­sid­ered their poten­tial beyond sim­plis­tic face-beating strate­gies, and at that moment the entire poten­tial of Magic opened up for me. I could lay down anoth­er crea­ture and swing for dam­age, but in two turns I’d be dead at the feet of the Reaper.


Hesitantly I tapped for mana, and dropped Tricks of the Trade onto Steve’s Reaper. He patient­ly explained that while I had the right idea about enchant­ments and auras, this par­tic­u­lar card was not one that should be aimed at my oppo­nen­t’s crea­tures unless I want­ed to die a very quick death. “OK”, I respond­ed, “but what if I also do…this?” and dropped Switcheroo to swap my lit­tle Electromancer for his newly buffed and com­plete­ly unblock­able Reaper.

A moment of silent ten­sion. He looked from the me to the board, back to me again. The pause stretched. One again he returns to star­ing at the board. Finally, Steve cleared his throat, looked back to me, and with a ter­ri­ble grav­i­tas he spoke: “.…shit”

And that was how Magic spoke to me. The real­i­sa­tion that what I’d been think­ing of a sim­plis­tic back-and-forth of attack and defence was some­thing more akin to a mad­man’s game of chess, where the pieces on the board were only half of the game and crazy stunts were not only allowed but implic­it­ly encour­aged. Once my brain wrapped itself around the con­cept, I was itch­ing to explore fur­ther; if I could win a game by steal­ing an oppo­nen­t’s best weapon, what else was I able to do? By the time I left Steve’s house that night, I’d bought that red/blue deck from him and was eager­ly study­ing my new cards and their abil­i­ties, search­ing for cool tricks to pull off. That excite­ment still impacts the way I look at cards today. I won’t sim­ply look at a crea­ture to see the cost, the strength — I’m also scan­ning the abil­i­ties or effects for ways to pair them with the abil­i­ties of other cards and make sparks fly in whol­ly unex­pect­ed direc­tions.

Do you still play? If so, what sort of decks do you run?
At time of writ­ing, I only run three decks, but they’re real doozies. I have a blue/black/white deck based around arti­facts and the relent­less exploita­tion there­of, a blue/green deck which focus­es on tak­ing ordi­nary crea­tures and buff­ing them to ridicu­lous lev­els to cre­ate an army of mon­sters, and a mono-red deck built almost exclu­sive­ly around Goblins. They’re all wild­ly dif­fer­ent to play with, but a com­mon theme runs through them all — I like to combo cards off one anoth­er, assem­bling an engine that can be greater than the sum of its parts. In later columns, should any­one care to read them, I’ll like­ly dis­sect all three decks and dis­cuss why they work and the var­i­ous sneaky tricks each one has for win­ning games.

Hannah DuVoix:

Who got you into the game, and how?
My friend and col­league Aaron Gotzon. He had a few of those mini-decks from a pro­mo­tion where­in you signed up for a free deck (appar­ent­ly he did it a few times). It was there that I first real­ized that Blue is the true way.

What is it about the game that orig­i­nal­ly caught your inter­est?
I’ve always loved CCGs and the idea of deck­build­ing. Magic, as it has one of the largest libraries of cards from which to draw, affords a lot of vari­ety and options for doing so.

Do you still play? If so, what sort of decks do you run?
I rarely get any game (although I’ve taken to teach­ing the game to a friend to fix that), but when I do I run a Blue/Red Control Burn deck. It draws from many blocks (most of my cards are very old), but is legal for Modern Construction play. The design phi­los­o­phy is sim­ple: Be a bas­tard.

Share a favourite story, anec­dote, or even a ran­dom piece of triv­ia you enjoy:
Previous builds of my deck (back before it was tour­na­ment legal) focused on Blue, and fea­tured main­ly fly­ing crea­tures and con­trol. My proud­est vic­to­ry with the old deck involved a combo of Rainbow Crow (which was dubbed “Pride Bird” among my play­ing group) and Jaded Response. That was a fun combo, and I would love to see it brought back.

Oscar Strik:

Who got you into the game, and how?
A class­mate of mine when I was ten years old. His elder broth­er was into fan­ta­sy games at the time, and it spread from there. Six months later I played my first game of AD&D with them and a few other kids. He just brought it to class one day and fig­ured I might be inter­est­ed, as he was prob­a­bly look­ing for more kids to play with. There was no Dutch trans­la­tion of the game at the time, so the pool of kids who had both a poten­tial inter­est in a nerdy game *and* enough English skills to read the rule­book was prob­a­bly pret­ty small.

What is it about the game that orig­i­nal­ly caught your inter­est?
I think the imag­i­na­tive power of rep­re­sen­ta­tion the cards had. Every card depict­ed and expressed in game terms a crea­ture, event, a power, with its own lore and atmos­phere. A new world opened up through those cards, and it was the first piece of fan­ta­sy fic­tion that I vora­cious­ly con­sumed.

Do you still play? If so, what sort of decks do you run?
No, I haven’t played a game in years and am con­sid­er­ing sell­ing or even giv­ing away my col­lec­tion. Not that I think many peo­ple would be inter­est­ed in a vin­tage pile of (most­ly) use­less cards.

Share a favourite story, anec­dote, or even a ran­dom piece of triv­ia you enjoy:
There isn’t one spe­cif­ic event that stands out. When I start­ed play­ing, it was­n’t very easy to acquire cards in my small town in the Netherlands, as the game was far from well-known. I got my first packs (Fourth Edition and Ice Age) from a cigar shop, who might have had their own kid who played the game. The always gave you extra cards for free, which was very cool.

I played most heav­i­ly between 1995 and 2000, and had my own lit­tle cir­cle of nerd friends who were into stuff like that. It was the kind of friend group that’s often passive-aggressive and hos­tile to each other, but you were sort of stuck with each other any­way. We did have a lot of fun though.

Eventually, as we all went to dif­fer­ent high schools, ties loos­ened, and the cost of keep­ing up with the game began to weigh heav­ier than the fun I got out of it, espe­cial­ly since I was get­ting more and more into AD&D and its var­i­ous expan­sions. But that’s a whole nother story.

Looking back, I trea­sure most the first year or so, immers­ing myself into the new cards—particularly Ice Age cap­tured my imagination—and find­ing out what had come before. Of course, I was bummed that the real­ly good stuff (the orig­i­nal set, Arabian Night, Legends, etc.) was prac­ti­cal­ly impos­si­ble to get for a kid like me, but that did­n’t lessen the appeal of the his­to­ry of the game.

Bill Coberly:

Who got you into the game and how?
I’d heard of the game and played the occa­sion­al round before, but it was­n’t until high school that I real­ly dug into Magic.  I had been home­schooled for the last two years of mid­dle school, such that hop­ping back into the pub­lic school sys­tem at Northglenn High, stu­dent pop­u­la­tion 2500, was a lit­tle bit jar­ring.  I did­n’t know very many of the peo­ple there, and, weird kid that I was (heh, was), mak­ing friends was dif­fi­cult.

An acquaintance-of-an-acquaintance ran mas­sive, clum­sy, many-player (five to twelve peo­ple) games of Magic at lunch in the enor­mous cafe­te­ria, and I man­aged to wran­gle myself an invite.  The table was a mot­ley assort­ment of enthu­si­as­tic teenage athe­ists, enthu­si­as­tic teenage Evangelicals, rebels, ston­ers, Juggalos, goths, skaters, and all-around weirdos.  I won’t say they “wel­comed me with open arms” so much as “allowed me to hang around and be weird,” but that was enough!  I did­n’t have any money, so I sub­sist­ed pri­mar­i­ly on peo­ple giv­ing away cards they did­n’t want and the occa­sion­al boost­er pack, but I had a great time, and learned a ton about deck design from the guys who won every sin­gle game with ridicu­lous unwieldy com­bos that yield­ed things like infi­nite sliv­ers (Sliver Queen, Heartstone, Ashnod’s Altar).

What is it about the game that orig­i­nal­ly caught your inter­est?
I want­ed to be able to talk shop with the older kids (kids in Dimmu Borgir shirts with bright-red or jet-black hair, who called them­selves things like “Dante”), and since I did­n’t have any money for new cards or to go to tour­na­ments, I start­ed read­ing the Magic: The Gathering web­site like it was required.  In a lot of ways it was the design of Magic and the ideas behind it that inter­est­ed me more than play­ing the game itself.  Mark Rosewater’s columns in par­tic­u­lar appealed to me, and I learned a ton about game design from read­ing them.  I began to under­stand rudi­men­ta­ry con­cepts like “bal­ance” and “bro­ken­ness,” and how to appeal to dif­fer­ent types of play­ers (Timmy, Johnny and Spike).  When I final­ly did get enough dis­pos­able income to start buy­ing some cards online and assem­bling decks that were built rather than just sort of thrown togeth­er with what­ev­er I had lying around, I did bet­ter than many of the other kids sim­ply because I had read the design doc­u­ments.

Do you still play?
No.  I played in high school and then again off-and-on through col­lege, but I gave away all my cards at the end of col­lege because I real­ized I was going to have to either stop or take it up semi-professionally, and I did­n’t real­ly have the money or the time for the lat­ter option.  As an adult, I fre­quent­ly find Magic frus­trat­ing when­ev­er I do play a one-off with a friend’s deck or the Duels of the Planeswalkers games.  Magic is an ele­gant­ly designed game, but with a lot of peo­ple it turns into a game of one-upsmanship and dirty tricks, and I don’t enjoy the table dynam­ics.  I don’t mind aggres­sive one-on-one games, but Magic’s empha­sis on con­trol mechan­ics and denial make it intense­ly frus­trat­ing.  I’m glad I played it as a kid, but as an adult I find that it does most of the things I don’t like in table­top game design.

When I did play, I had four decks I was proud of.

1. A Red/Green (but most­ly arti­fact) Megatog deck designed around stay­ing alive for seven turns and then feed­ing an entire armory to the Megatog, who would then tram­ple your foe to the ground.
2. A Black (well, tech­ni­cal­ly every­thing) rean­i­ma­tor deck based around Entomb, which threw expen­sive crea­tures into my grave­yard and let me rean­i­mate them for pen­nies to crush my ene­mies.  I never quite had enough money to make this work (Entomb was like $20 a copy at the time), but it was prob­a­bly my best tech­ni­cal deck.
3. A pure Red gob­lin deck which either had five gob­lins by turn three or had a real­ly ter­ri­ble hand.
4. A Grip of Chaos deck, which I’ll talk more about below.

Share a favourite story, anec­dote, or even a ran­dom piece of triv­ia you enjoy:
It’s more a col­lec­tion of sto­ries.  My favorite deck was based around Grip of Chaos, a ridicu­lous enchant­ment from Scourge which took all tar­get­ed spells or abil­i­ties and retar­get­ed them at ran­dom from all avail­able tar­gets.  As you might imag­ine, this ren­dered the game entire­ly unplayable.

The rest of the deck was full of goofy stuff which inter­act­ed well with Grip of Chaos, like Confusion in the Ranks, which trades per­ma­nents with other per­ma­nents, now at ran­dom thanks to the Grip, or just plain-old Fireball, for tons of ran­dom dam­age to… some­thing.  There is noth­ing quite like charg­ing up a 25-point Fireball and just throw­ing it in the air, with no idea where it will land.

The deck was most fun in the afore­men­tioned mas­sive games, and I only ever played it if every­one else was cool with it.  It never won a game, of course, but that was­n’t the point — it turned the game from a hyper-serious com­pe­ti­tion, full of bruised egos and hyper­mas­cu­line pos­tur­ing into a far­ci­cal com­e­dy of errors, where even the sim­plest actions became entire­ly unpre­dictable.