I have got to find the river
Bergamot and Vetiver
Run through my head and fall away
REM, 'Find The River'
I packed up my whole Magic collection and took the plane to Seattle, on a work contract of undisclosed duration. But more spiritually, I was obviously drawn there by fate. My quest: to hunt down the source of Old School.
If Gothenburg's Rotary Pub is the Mecca of Old School, then Seattle is its Jerusalem, and in my time in the city I enjoyed many fine games with the welcoming local tribe. But one event - still on the horizon when I decided to come out here - attracted me more than other: GP Vegas. This year, celebrating the 25th anniversary of the game. A trip was essential.
I caught the plane down on Wednesday, the day before the 'sanctioned' Old School event at the Las Vegas Convention Centre. After getting settled at my hotel, I made my way to meet up for dinner with Daniel and his Vintage Magic crew. If you believe what you read on the internet, then this would have led to a night plotting Machiavellian buy-outs while lighting cigars with crimped Hypnotic Spectres.
Instead I spent the evening in the company of some very welcoming - and very hardcore - Magic nerds, and was able to give my deck a run-out back in their hotel suite. As they wound down before the business of the GP, I then headed over to the Encore casino.
Here I met up with members of the Stockholm In A Bottle crew who had joined us all the way from the Old Continent, as well as meeting up the Beasts Of The Bay. It felt a bit like that scene at the start of The Warriors, only the grime of Coney Island was replaced by waitresses in barely-there dresses bringing us beers and eyeing our cardboard with a palpable sense of disdain. In fairness, my altered Plateau only signals "high-roller" to the most discerning of eyes. (And in the company of these pimped-out collectors, barely even then!).
I was reunited with Dom from N00bcon who gamely rolled out a sweet Gauntlet/Candelabra deck which left the door open to this rather cheeky finisher:
|The lesser-spotted pair of 7/2 Ball Lightnings - now with added toughness!|
The next morning I took the short but scorching walk to the venue. Everything in this country is maxi-sized, from the waistbands to the polarisation of the politics, and this was no different:
|Karn made an appearance. Presumably Obsianus Golem was busy|
The Old School tournament kicked off at a prompt 11am, complete with a couple of slight buzzkills: deck lists and CE/IE banned. This was all understandable, but along with the enormo-dome venue feel and the lack of convivial drinking, this didn't set things up to scream 'Spirit of Old School'.
This said, everything else about the event was bang-on. From an international cast list including my fellow Londoner Jason, to some heavy-hitting big names from days gone by, to the rather luscious playmats laid on by the organisers.
I was running an American-friendly build of my pet deck, but making full use of the liberal US system. Most importantly, my Goblins were exercising their Second Amendment privileges in the form of four Grenades. And the deck had additional spike in the quad Strip Mine configuration:
|(98% right - I think the final build had three Shatters)|
Thereafter I enjoyed some fun games, in particular against Steven of Beasts of The Bay, whose foiled-out protest against the banning of CE brought a tear to my eye - and went all the way to a Chaos Orb flip-off. Although not the ideal way to finish a match played in great spirit, I was glad to participate in another American tradition.
This deck is great fun to play - the Balance alleviates the 'glass cannon' effect of mono-red, and with plenty of red mana, Fork continued to provide a lot of value. My play of the day against Erik occurred a turn after he had painstakingly got his Library back online. He unleashed a five-point Mind Twist on me, to which I responded with two Bolts to the face and a Fork of the Twist.
More prosaically, a Forked Grenade is an obviously devastating play, but not one that can be mindlessly fired off. The Goblins on the ground need to be given time to do their crucial early damage to ensure the deck doesn't run out of reach. A number of players were holding back creature-removal against me and waiting for a Goblin King to hit the table. In the UK and Europe that card never sees serious play, despite its special place in my heart. This was one of many instances of the subtle differences between the two systems that ripple out from the different approach to Strip Mine.
After five rounds of Swiss I was running 4-1 and mildly annoyed not to be facing into another couple of rounds of pairings to really separate the field. But it wasn't to be, so I came away with a reasonable 13th place out of 92.
|'Cermak Attak' vs. Brian Weissman. He eventually came out victorious with an absolutely brutal Energy Flux to which Brian couldn't find an answer. The Old School event also featured Randy Bueller and Luis Scott-Vargas.|
My 200 "tix" (urgh...) barely scratched the surface at the prize booth and left me feeling like a Dickensian urchin, my breath steaming at the window the sweete shoppe as I beheld some of the goodies on offer:
Arabians are my favourite set and busting a pack one day is firmly on the fantasy bucket list.
|The UK and Sweden representing (picture credit: Patrick, the now-traditional 'candidate' member of the SiaB crew)|
I've noted in the US that not only is CE and IE tolerated, but proxies are also more common. I've always had mixed feelings about this. So much of the fun of the game is about waiting to acquire the cards you want, not to mention the feeling of actually holding the genuine article in your hand, as well as observing the care and attention put into people's decks (particularly in the States where signed and altered cards are more common). I sense that Old School is now likely to become a fairly closed community - which wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing as long as it continues to be played in the way it has been up to now.
However it also seems likely that in the absence of being able to acquire new cardboard at affordable prices, there will be more pressure to relax restrictions on CE and potentially on proxies. This will lead to differences of opinion. My own perspective is that diversity should be welcomed. I love the challenge of collecting Unlimited cards with a view to playing them when I visit Sweden, and it rankles when people online confuse the purism of the Swedes with blind elitism. Anyone who has played there can see this isn't the case.
This said, I also enjoyed blasting out cut-price CE blue power while I was in the US. And in Seattle I played a ten-year-old girl at a casual event, whose lovingly hand-made proxy Mox Jet was in no danger of harming the community within the confines of Redmond Public Library. There's room for everyone to play the game in their own way as long as we respect each other's love of the game and present a united front against counterfeiters and spikes.
|Ok, time to get off my high horse and back to the GP...|
Meeting artists is a rare opportunity in Europe, and I then made the rounds of the big Old School names in attendance: Dan Frazier, Douglas Shuler, Mark Poole, Ken Meyer Jr, and many others were there. While some were more open to conversation than others, it was still a blast to get some white-bordered stuff signed.
However the highlight was meeting Drew Tucker, whom regular readers will know is my favourite Old School artist, and was an absolute gent. I was also able to commission this quickie-alter from Anson Maddocks - my very own unique Blood Lust featuring Fallen Angel...
The ludicrous fanboying didn't stop there, as I then met up with Brian Weissman, inventor of The Deck, who gamely agreed to play a match against me in EC rules. Needless to say he was a top bloke and although I took the first game off him, his sideboarding blew me apart. I was particularly struck by the way he analysed every situation on the board and was able to anticipate my threats as though he knew my deck inside-out. I figured getting taken down 2-1 by one of the legendary players of the format wasn't too bad a result! He was a gracious victor and his passion for and understanding of the game, as well as his enthusiasm for Old School, was exactly what I had imagined.
That evening, Stockholm In A Bottle hosted their own casual event at the Westgate Casino where we played round-robin and I took away a very casually-awarded second prize.
|Not pictured: hordes of dead-eyed gamblers|
|More precious than 200 tix, at any rate|
The next day was low on Old School. I tried my hand at qualifying for the Beta draft, not counting on my total ignorance of the Dominaria set being a serious impediment. However, there was still the evening to play some Old School and to hang out with the Beasts of the Bay and some of the soon-to-be-monikered Seattle squad. I also managed to put out this frankly obscene starter from a mull to six:
In terms of Old School, the weekend finished off Downtown the next day at the Beasts Of The Bay event. Although the venue sadly couldn't accommodate everyone, its location in a brewery was perfect for our needs.
The class of the event was evident immediately. While other tournaments give you a participation card, these guys hand out participation playsets.
|... and playable playsets, at that!|
With 5-6 rounds of Swiss (the local IPAs slightly obscure my recollection), this was a great tournament. My Goblin deck was fortified with blue power for this one, but didn't perform on the day. The concept evidently needs some work as I ran out 1-4. But the highlight was meeting everyone and enjoying the game as - in my view - it ought to be played: giving take-backs, beer-in-hand, and putting enjoyment over competition.
The event was also held under Beasts' house rules which meant I was running a Falling Star, and making the most of their errata (quoted here from their website):
- We have special errata for Falling Star. Falling Star's errata is as follows: "Choose any number of non-token creatures on the battlefield, then arrange them in the playing area in any way except that none of them may overlap. Flip Falling Star onto the playing area from a height of at least one foot. Falling Star deals 3 damage to each chosen creature it lands on. Tap all creatures dealt damage by Falling Star. If Falling Star doesn't turn completely over at least once during the flip, it has no effect."
As self-appointed captain of the (defeated) UK Ryder Cup Chaos Orb Flipping Team, Falling Star has always been one of my favourite cards. So I was hugely in favour of this change:
Personally I quite like the idea of these kinds of 'house rules'. Too many of them and the game will become impossible to play, but a spot of local colour doesn't do any harm, especially on a fringe card or two.
The next day it was all over and I headed back to Seattle. My time there has now come to an end and I'm back in London.
So did I find the source of Old School? GP Vegas may have been marking the 25th anniversary of the format, but anyone who witnessed the Beta draft can see that those days have gone. The game is played in a fundamentally different way these days - from people's understanding of the power of cards, to the strategies, to evaluating the now jaw-dropping value of the cardboard.
Talking to the Old School artists, and others from the early days, gave echoes of that time - but it's passed.
But then, to me, the point about Old School is that it isn't a throwback format. I've never wanted to go back to the game as it was played in '93 (apart from maybe the odd game of Alpha-only at the Wizards' Tournament). The real source of the game is the groundbreaking genius of the early days and the early sets, when Wood Elemental and Moat could be released by the same development team. That sense of innocence and enthusiasm is what makes the format and community special, and it was something I felt connected with throughout my time in Vegas. If that's as close as you'll get to the source, then that's enough for me.
Thanks for reading this mammoth post - and I hope one day to cross paths again with some of the great players I met at the GP. And to anyone who hasn't been, I recommend trying the American way. In fact, I may even be a convert to the four Strip Mine way of thinking...
(Some additional pictures from the trip follow)
|Kevin's Library Of Leng coaster. If were in the 90s rap community then this would be a diss track. Ether anyone?|
|Holding a trophy card with Skype Mtg luminary Jeff W - we competed for the first ever Fire Mountain vs Brothers of Fire, which he took down 3-2. Next year!|