I learned to play Magic in the spring of 1994. 

I was 11.  My neighbor who was a few years older was watching me while my parents weren’t home, and my best friend and his older brother came over with two Revised Starter Decks.  We opened them, split them in half, and played a four-player game.  Shortly after that, summer school would start–there was a local program where classes would be run during the summer that I took for fun.  One of them was a class on games.  We managed to get permission to bring cards and play Magic in class.  Toward the end of summer, my friends and I went to Gen Con, my first Magic event, (though it was a lot more than a Magic event).  I’d never heard of it before that year.  I’d never heard of conventions in general before that year, and it was basically the best thing that had ever existed.

I remember seeing people playing a card game that looked like Magic in a roped-off area that I thought must have been some other card game because everyone had these cards that didn’t look familiar–I didn’t get a good look at them, but they all just had pictures of big jewels on them.

I’d never seen a Mox before, of course, and had no idea that I was walking by the first Magic World Championships.

I don’t remember much from when I was 11, but I have a lot of memories of that first Gen Con.  I won’t get into all of them, but I was beyond hooked on Magic, Gen Con, and events in general.  I went back every year for a long time.

By the second or third year I was there, I’d managed to acquire all the Moxes myself.  This was before there were different Magic formats and after I’d discovered tournaments, so I basically had an Old School deck built.  Then they created Standard/Type 2/different formats, and then most tournaments used cards I didn’t own because my whole Magic budget went toward the cards I needed for Vintage/Type 1. I didn’t have money to keep up with a rotating format.  So for a few years, I couldn’t really play in most tournaments, but at Gen Con, I could always find other people who played the format I played.

So I have a lot of nostalgia for playing with Power at Gen Con in the mid-’90s.

Much later, in the mid-2000s, I was still attending Gen Con every year, but now I was good at Magic and had the cards to play in all the biggest tournaments there.  Gen Con isn’t really marketed as a competitive event the way Grand Prixes were.  The audience is always more casual–people who want to go to a general gaming convention and play some Magic while they’re there, because the cost and difficulty of attending a giant, crowded convention doesn’t really appeal to people who are just looking for a Magic tournament.  That meant the field was pretty soft, so I had a good run where every year I’d win a few thousand dollars in prizes at Gen Con.

Then I started to really play Magic professionally, like playing in all the Pro Tours and almost every Grand Prix, and sometimes other events overlapped with Gen Con, and I fell out of the habit of attending. Gen Con got bigger and finding housing near the convention got harder. Eventually, I gave up on it.  I went to so many other events that it wasn’t really that special anymore.

Mox Ruby by Dan Frazier

A Return to Gen Con

This year, a friend had booked an Airbnb for him and his friends, but one of them had to cancel, so he was looking for someone to take the open space in their place.  I didn’t have any conflicts, and that seemed easy, so I took him up on it.

I looked into what kind of events were happening and saw that they were running some Old School tournaments, so I built a deck for that to really capture the nostalgia of my early Gen Con years.  I wrote about that here.

Gen Con has always felt like coming home for me–a combination of childhood nostalgia and some “I run these streets” vibes from all the tournaments I’ve won there before, and I got all those feelings again this year.

Lately, I’ve been playing a lot more paper constructed Magic than I really ever have before (and I say that as someone who’s played a lot), so I have a much better idea of which cards I’d like to own that I don’t own. I was able to really take advantage of the vendor hall, which is an aspect of the convention I usually ignore, but it was fun to buy a lot of cards between rounds of my events.

Magic events at Gen Con basically work like this: there are scheduled events and on-demand events.  The on-demand events fire whenever enough people sign up and offer some prize wall tickets.  They offer various constructed and limited formats and Commander pods where everyone gets the same number of tickets regardless of finish.  Scheduled events typically have larger prizes, so of course I play in those. 

There’s typically an event on Sunday called the Gen Con Championships, which you can qualify for by doing well in a qualifying event.  This year the Sunday tournament was Double Masters (2X2) Sealed and Top 8 draft, and the qualifying events were eight different RCQs with a mix of Pioneer, Modern, and LTR Sealed available.  I played in two LTR sealed RCQs and split the top 4 of the second one (I was already qualified for the RC in Atlanta, but Top 8 was good enough to qualify for the Gen Con Championships).

Chaos Orb by Mark Tedin

Flip Your Chaos Orbs for Italian Legends

I managed to play in both of the Old School events that fired–the first one launched with only three players, so we played round-robin.  My opponents played Howling Mine/Winter Orb/Nether Void/Black Vise–I guess you could just call it prison, Ernham/Geddon (a mostly Bant deck with the best creatures available and Armageddon), and U/R control.  I didn’t drop a game in that tournament and loved my deck.

There was another tournament on Friday while I was playing Sealed that only three people signed up for, so it didn’t fire.  On Saturday we had an unexpected full eight players.  This event was weirder.  Gen Con’s pretty chaotic, so the smaller side events don’t necessarily have the most judge attention, and with Old School, the judges running it had basically been told that Old School has some weird ways of doing things since it’s not a sanctioned format and that they should basically just let players handle it and play their way unless the players ask them to get involved.  This meant round timers were loose at best.

In my first match I won a very long first game against Zoo and then played a second game where I started with Library of Alexandria, but only found Blue and White mana while my opponent curved out creatures. I basically ended up being one life short of being able to stabilize.  Time was called at the appropriate time, and we didn’t have time for a third game.  The way this tournament worked, at the beginning of each match, some Prize Wall tickets were set on the table, and the winner of the match got them, then at the end of the tournament, anyone who had three wins got a pack of Italian Legends, so a draw was horrible.  Fortunately, Old School doesn’t have ties.  Instead, ties are resolved via Chaos Orb flipping contest.  You each flip, and if you hit and your opponent doesn’t, you win the match.  Repeat until that happens.  We agreed to split the tickets and flip for who got that match win, and I won.

In my next round, I played against a player playing 4 Shahrazad.  I think this was the first time I’ve ever actually played against Shahrazad, and it was really something.  I’m not going to go into all the nuttiness of this match, but unsurprisingly, we went to a draw despite getting who knows how much actual round time before a judge showed up and wondered how we were still playing.  I won the Chaos Orb flipping contest, which is kind of surprising, as I’d expect that if you’re playing a Shahrazad deck in this format it must be because you’re an Orb flipping master, but I guess it was more just because sub-games are fun.

In the last round, I played against the same Prison deck I’d played against two days earlier.  I lost the second game to a timely Huryl’s Recall backed by Pyroblast followed by Stormseeker, using my opponent’s entire hand, which was followed by a topdecked Timetwister to get rid of all the cards I’d bounced, which drew into a Braingeyser to kill me with three Black Vises.  In the third game, again, our round time was a mystery. At some point, a new judge came by and declared that there were seven minutes left.  I’d sided out my win conditions other than Braingeyser, but had complete control of the game.  Unfortunately, I had so many triggers and objects to keep track of that I’d forgotten to Tormod’s Crypt my opponent before casting a Timetwister, and now I needed to deck an opponent with a 38-card library.  I could do that with Braingeyser + Regrowth, and I could hold enough Counterspells and keep his mana contained enough that I should be able to survive a turn of giving him 18 cards, but I forgot about his Fastbond. I could have easily Disenchanted it first, but he easily beat me after getting to put all his lands into play.

Regrowth by Dameon Willich

Other Events, a Drinking Game, and Greatness at Any Cost

My other events were sealed, so I figure they’re not as interesting to talk about.  My first LTR pool was horrible, my second one was absolutely fantastic. My Top 8 LTR draft was functional but below average, which was good enough to win a match. My 2X2 sealed was pretty weak, but it’s a tricky format where building a deck with a coherent strategy often matters more than opening bombs. I built a pretty good deck, and in the Top 8 draft, I opened Lavalanche and drafted a very good 5-color green deck.

Outside of tournaments, I had a bunch of other great experiences and absurd luck–I played a random five-player pickup game of Commander late Saturday evening and someone walked by while we were playing and said that the winner of the game got a Secret Lair serialized Merfolk of the Pearl Trident, and I won.  I ran into Bob Maher (the Dark Confidant) and showed him my Old School deck and he gave me a Beta Regrowth and Legends Sylvan Library he happened to have on him to upgrade it. Late Saturday night, while waiting for my friends to carpool back to our Airbnb, I ended up playing a drinking game in a hotel lobby with one of the original founders of Wizards of the Coast who told me stories about the early days, his role in the US Military, and why he didn’t want to be credited as one of the original playtesters of Magic.

All in all, I couldn’t ask for more from my return to Gen Con. I look forward to going back.

Sam Black (any) is a former professional Magic player, longtime Magic writer, host of the Drafting Archetypes podcast, and Twitch streamer. Sam is also a Commander Cube enthusiast, and you can find Sam’s cube list here. For anything else, find Sam on Twitter: @SamuelHBlack.I

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