For Magic players, the pre-release event of a new set is like having four extra Christmases a year: You get to sit and unwrap your new gifts with your “family” of other players, and revel in the joy of new toys. I haven’t missed many prereleases since Invasion in 1999, so even though I’d be vacationing in France during the Amonkhet release, I knew I still couldn’t miss it.

There was only one problem: I can’t speak or read French. Welcome to the story of the Amonkhet Prerelease, or, as they say in France, “Amonkhet Prerelease.” (Some things are universal, I suppose.)

I’m staying in Montpellier, and a quick search showed four gaming stores there. (For those of you whose only knowledge of France is Paris, Montpellier is in the South of France; it is Not Paris. I hope that clears things up.) I called a few, and quickly ran into my first barrier: Even if I could identify which store was hosting a prerelease, I couldn’t speak to the people working at the store well enough to figure out who had any seats left open to reserve.

I found the facebook page of a place called Tableraze Montpellier, whose page claimed they typically responded to messages “within minutes”. This was false: they responded within seconds. The part-owner Aymeric was incredibly helpful and friendly, and when I finally got to the store he made sure I was acclimating well. He would often sit in on my matches as a translator or spectator. Sometimes cheerleader, sometimes commiserator.

The store had the immediate hallmarks of any gaming store in the world: People in black t-shirts staring intently at cardboard. The primary French twist on the LGS is that it is an open-air affair, with natural light and coffee and cigarettes flowing freely. After some meeting and greeting and light international teasing, (“You’re from New York? Are you sure not New Jersey?” “I hope it is not true what I hear about the French conceding too soon….”) we got down to it: Cracking open our prerelease packs.

I had pored over the spoiler page and listened to the 4-hour Limited Resources podcast set review on a long flight, so I had essentially memorized every single card. The challenge of reading the cards was nullified, knowing them by picture. The only question I ended up having to ask repeatedly was “Does this affect itself or just other creatures?” until I realized the word “autre” meant “other.” (Without the in-depth analysis of the LR cast this day would have been impossible. I highly recommend listening to it at 1.5 speed, for the sake of time and for forcing LSV to make puns in a squeaky voice)

Despite the language barrier, there was no mistaking this familiar sight: This was a fairly weak sealed pool. No unbeatable mythics or bombs to speak of, and a lot of my most powerful cards were in colors with no meat and potatoes to back them up in the rest of the color. Removal was light and a lot of synergies had missing pieces. In other words, it was a sealed pool.

After poring over my pool I decided that Black and White were both solid enough and had two showstoppers at five mana: Liliana’s Mastery and Regal Caracal. Having enough cats and mummies to fill out those tribal synergies (the French call them “Momies” which is adorable) made me commit to a go-wide strategy.

So, I was playing Cat Mummy tribal.  “Le Chat Noir/Blanc,” if you will. It even had a “Monument To Cats.” My deck ended up being very low-to-the-ground on mana cost, with a more cluttered three slot than I’ve ever seen fit to play. However, Amonkhet is a very forgiving format for that, with embalm and cycling giving you many things to do with extra mana. Here’s the pile:

The 23rd card started out as In Oketra’s Name, but I was unsure about it’s strength. I ended up siding it out quite often. Interesting cards not played: I decided against Bontu’s Monument because that life drip is too small for a deck that can’t really capitalize on the cost reduction. None of my four black creatures cost more than three mana anyway. Oketra’s Monument, by contrast, gives you a full token and cheapens half my deck.

I briefly considered splashing green for Cartouche of Strength to compliment my multiple Trials, and for the “Lead” half of Destined // Lead. It may have worked out but straight-up Cat Mommies was the safer bet.

Round 1—Fire vs. No Cats

I was paired with Luis, and Aymeric sat in. Luis said he was a new player that had started yesterday. In hindsight I think this was a joke. I never drew a single cat all game. In hindsight I think this was a mistake.

Game one was a wonderful story about mummies being set on fire, dropped in magma and electrocuted. I didn’t play a single card that Luis did not immediately kill in horrible ways. After my “Ecretuer De Pest” got “Electrifier” I turned to Aymeric and gave my most stereotypically French “Sacre Bleu!”

Game two was more interesting. My curve started out fairly well but my push stalled when his bigger creatures started coming out. Fanbearer (or my favorite new word “Flabellifere”) did some serious work against a Greater Sandwurm and Luis always paused before combat to let me use it. The one time I said “No tap,” he and Aymeric looked at each other and said “Oh?” Luis hesitated but attacked with the Sandwurm anyway. I blocked with an Embalmed zombie and used Time To Reflect, and he said “Oh. Yes, my Sandwurm, he goes to reflect for a bit.”

After a good game of back-and-forth, my efforts were in vain: a timely Electrify after double-blocking his Shefet Monitor sealed my fate. We still had time after our match, and in our bonus game I saw he had Hazoret The Fervent and Glorybringer as backup. After all that, I felt less bad about losing. Luis went on to come in first, which makes me feel even better. The next best thing to winning is losing to the winner.

Round one summary: removal is good and you should play it.

Round 2—Hippos vs. Cats

I was paired with Nils, who happened to be Luis’s brother. I couldn’t tell if he was older or younger, but he was bearder.

Nils was on Green/Blue and he took an early lead by planting Cartouche of Strength on Hekma Sentinels. I took care of that situation by having my mummified Sacred Cat give it Time To Reflect. In game terms it was a blowout, but in lore terms I like to imagine that his (guy) realized he was about to beat an undead cat to death and reevaluated his life. Went back to law school maybe, got a real job. The ground stalled thanks to my Flabellifere keeping a Defiant Greatmaw too comfy to attack, and I started chipping in every other turn with a Gust Walker. I played a Cartouche of Ambition and was about to return both Trials to my hand when he “Annuler” the whole plan.

Between games, I made a deck tweak here that served me well, taking out In Oketra’s Name for Honed Kopesh. Little equipment like Kospesh is usually thought to be too low-impact to be worth a card, but in Amonkhet I really like it and was never unhappy to draw it: The games are won by midrange efficiently costed threats and if you can repeatedly turn your little guys into answers for those threats, that’s fantastic. There are also tons of two-drops that have or gain abilities through exert, and that little +1/+1 becomes huge when your little creature is gaining trample, flying, etc.

I was beginning to think I’d never draw my Regal Caracal or Liliana’s Mastery all tournament, but I had them both in my opening hand as well as the Flabellifere I needed to last until then. I did, and they took over the game. Warhammer zombies and Cats with swords in their teeth.

In game three a Wasteland Scorpion wielding Honed Kopesh did a lot of work to draw this game out and chip away, and I held back my Regal Caracal on turn five when I smelled a counter coming. He tapped out for a Scaled Behemoth but at that point it was too late: Cats. Cats everywhere.

Round two summary: Flabellifere is the best card in my deck and possibly the best word in France.

Round 3—Cats vs Cats

Eric was the only other person in the store wearing a leather jacket, and the computer algorithm used that information to pair us together. It was only fair.

I usually “sell” people on Magic: The Gathering by telling them it’s a cross between Chess and Poker, but there was a match here that literally came down to “Who has more Cats in play.” That’s the new elevator pitch now.

Game one started off fairly slow, mulling to six and keeping a hand with three Plains, “Opportune Moment” (Impeccable Timing), Unwavering Initiate, and Regal Caracal. We both plugged along fairly straightforwardly, until BAM, BAM, we both played Regal Caracal on turn five. This match is suddenly the CAT MIRROR.

Aymeric is watching and he laughs at the situation. “It is a Catfight.” “I am worried, though,” I joke, pointing at his Sacred Cat. “He has one more cat than me.”

The Kopesh comes in handy again, with my Regal Caracal just being too big for anybody to attack profitably. We build our forces, trade up and embalm until the board is completely stalled. Finally, I see an opening. I slam down Trial Of Solidarity, which we all laugh about when we realize it is a cat-faced god commanding the cats to attack. His board is bigger, but +2/+1 and vigilance is no joke. I swing in, and he lays out precisely calculated double-blocks. These blocks fall apart for him when I use Impeccable Timing to kill his Regal Caracal midcombat, shrinking the rest of his team of cats. Suddenly, every win is a trade and every trade is a loss, and I have just pulled off a 5-for-1 Pentakill. It wipes his board.

One turn later he embalms his Sacred Cat, and I kill it with Cartouche of Ambition just for laughs. “No. No cats for you. Only I can have cats.” Funniest game of magic I’ve had outside of EDH.

My game two hand looks like it will curve out, but I end up facing down a Colossapede wearing Cartouche of Solidarity. He attacks with it and I let loose the two Impeccable Timings that I’ve been saving up. “Impossible to see that coming.” he says, without any bitterness. A familiar play follows, as I chain Regal Caracal into Trial of Solidarity to close out the tournament.

Round three summary: If you have more cats than your opponent, you win the game. It’s just math.

My record meant I came in 6th, and I had Impossible luck with my prize packs.

All in all it was an exciting experience! Gamers can often be a bit standoffish, but the community at Tableraze was friendly and welcoming. Whatever barriers I thought would exist between us ended up being completely irrelevant: We all spoke Magic.

Bret Lehne is a friend of Hipsters of the Coast, and apparently, also spends his Aprils in the South of France.

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