It was the finals of my first Magic tournament. I sat at a table in the middle of DJ’s Comics & Cards in Lake Oswego, a suburb of Portland. Later, I would get my first job working there, but today all I could earn was a box of the not-yet-released Fallen Empires. There were enough people watching the last match to completely surround the table.

My opponent was attacking me with a Shivan Dragon, and he seemed to be perfectly happy to do five damage despite an excess of untapped Mountains. I asked him if he’d like to pump it up. “Oh! Yeah,” he said, and considered: “I’ll pump it four times.”

I smiled, and tapped my only green source, a Tropical Island, to cast the best card in my deck, Berserk, on his dragon. The crowd, and my opponent, were baffled. Then, I tapped five more lands and cast Eye for an Eye and Reverse Damage. I gained 18, he took 18, and his dragon died. I won the game handily. In those early days, matches were just one game, so that was it.

I loved that deck. Classic Blue/White control, splashing some other colors with dual lands. I loved it so much that I just kept evolving it as I got better at the game and my collection grew — I never really built any other decks. There was only one format for most of those early days: what we now call Vintage. I played suburban comic-shop tournaments with the same deck every Saturday, and lots of Sundays, for years. As best I can remember, it looked something like this:

My First Deck

Mana (25)
Tropical Island
Underground Sea
Library of Alexandria
Sol Ring
Mox Emerald
Mox Pearl
Mox Sapphire
Mox Jet
Black Lotus

Spells (29)
Ancestral Recall
Time Walk
Demonic Tutor
Mind Twist
Sylvan Library
Swords to Plowshares
Spirit Link
Mana Drain
Icy Manipulator

Creatures (6)
Erhnam Djinn
Serendib Efreet
Elvish Ranger

There was a sideboard, too, but my memory can reach no deeper. I remember feeling that I had built the best deck that could be built. I was a terror of the Portland suburban Magic scene.

It was during this period that Brett Quorn, a young man I had never met, came into DJ’s while I was working. He walked straight to the counter and asked where he could find a Magic player he’d heard of named “Gabe”.

Brett was a little older than I was, and not overly friendly. He challenged me to a match on the spot. For ante. We agreed to put up a dual-land each for the winner, and played right there on the counter. His deck was aggressive, with Dark Rituals, Hymn to Tourachs, Juzam Djinns, and Lightning Bolts. I put a Spirit Link on his Juzam Djinn, countered his Hymns, and crushed him. He scowled and left.

I didn’t see him until he came back two months later for a rematch. The bet was the same, but, to my surprise, his deck was different. He was playing Brian Weissman’s “The Deck“. It was the first I had heard of it. He crushed me. He briefly condescended to explained why my matchup was hopeless before sauntering off, never to return.

Weissman’s deck really was better than mine. A lot better. I didn’t understand it out right away, but I knew something had changed about Magic for me. At first, it was scary and upsetting, but it’s one of the reasons I’m still playing the game 20 years later.

Magic isn’t a game you solve. Brett Quorn was worse than I was, but he kept learning until he not only caught up: he became better because he kept learning. The beautiful thing about Magic is that there’s always more to learn. Brett helped me see that, and helped me move on from that strange old control deck.

Much to my surprise after our contentious introduction, Brett and I eventually became friends. Perhaps Magic isn’t the only thing that changes.

Gabe Carleton-Barnes has been playing Magic for over 20 years, mostly as a PTQ grinder and intermittently as a Pro Tour competitor. Currently based in Portland, Oregon, where he is an Open Source web developer by day, Gabe lived in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, for three years. While there, he failed to make a documentary about competitive Magic but succeeded in deepening his obsession with the game. Gabe is now a ringleader and community-builder for the competitive Magic scene in Portland, wielding old-timey slang and tired cliches to motivate kids half his age to drive with him to tournaments.

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