Its story time. In this article I'm going to go over my history as a magic player/deck builder and some of the most important decks I've built. I'll also include the times I think I did the most improvement over and maybe a few reasons why.
The Beginning and My First Deck
This is the most obvious starting point and a very important one at that. If there wasn't a first deck there wouldn't be any other decks either.
My first exposure to Magic was in 7th grade where I watched a game two people in my group in Home Economics class were playing. I wasn't all that interested at the time but it was the first time I has seen a Magic card. I do remember that one of the players was Shane Grimes (I didn't know him yet at that point though) and that there was a Feral Thallid in play at some point.
I didn't see it again for a while though and it wasn't until I became friends with Dustin that I actually became interested in the game. He didn't actually teach me how to play though. I was self taught. After watching him play for a while I became interested and downloaded the demo for the Micropose Magic game. This demo basically just let you duel an opponent with one of 5 decks (one of each color). The first thing I did even before installing the demo was print out the rules and read them. This is something that is totally like me and not something that most people would do. I learned to play Magic by basically reading the the Comprehensive Rules. I didn't play a game with a friend and have them introduce me to it slowly. I read a 150 page text file. Try finding more people who learned like that. After a few weeks of playing the demo Dustin took me to a local card shop to get my first real cards.
It was March of 1997. Fifth Edition was the newest set (as in like a week or two old) and Mirage was the most recent Expansion. I had been watching Dustin play for a while and he took me to a local card shop to get my first cards. I had around $20 to spend for the first month and likely about $5 each week after that. Funds were tight. My only income was a $20 a month allowance and if I skipped lunch $10 a week. I usually spend half the lunch money on food and pocketed the rest (I kept this tradition up throughout High School). At the time Dustin was assembling a set of 5th Edition (He eventually took this apart because 5th is gay) which influenced the cards he told me to buy. I bought a Starter of Mirage and 2-3 boosters of 5th Edition. I don't remember all of the rares I got but I do know among them was a Soul Echo and a Sylvan Library. I still have that Soul Echo. Dustin took a look at the cards and decided black and green were my best colors. We then went to Dustin's and he traded something like 200-300 spare black and green commons and a bunch of basic lands for the Sylvan Library and possibly a few other cards I don't remember. He then assembled a black/green deck out of those cards. The only cards I remember being in the deck were Erg Raiders, Scryb Sprites, Ironroot Treefolk, Gravebane Zombie, and Word of Binding. We didn't have time to actually play a game and I went home having still never played an actual game of Magic.
Of course the first thing I did when I got home was add like 20 cards I thought were cool to the deck and didn't add any more land to offset this. Go noobs. I do remember that I removed Word of Binding because I thought it sucked and added Hasran Ogress because she was cool. At least I got that part right (meaning Word of Binding does in fact suck and Hasran Ogress is still cool). I don't remember the exact deck but I'm sure it was over 80 cards with 24 land.
My first attempt at an actual game of Magic was during Spanish class with a guy named Matt Hoffman. He used to follow Dustin around and was present when I bought my cards. I want to first say that Matt Hoffman is a huge dick. This game will be my biggest example of why. I don't remember too much except that he completely destroyed me. I only later found out why. He cheated. Big time. He basically took advantage of the fact that I was new and made up rules and told me cards did things that they didn't actually do. I remember at one point I had out Gravebane Zombie (this was totally my favorite card) and during his turn he tapped a red creature and said it "forced him to attack and he couldn't so he was dead." I picked up the zombie and put it on top of my library. He told me "No, it is removed from the game and couldn't come back." I remembered what the art on the card looked like and eventually learned what the card was. So what card was it that can do all this? Dwarven Warriors. He cheated against someone playing their absolute first real game of magic ever. Needless to say Matt Hoffman is a huge dick.
I don't remember much else I did with this deck but I do know I never won a single game with it. I eventually dismantled it and built a mono-black deck. This deck was pretty similar but ran none of the lame green cards and more cool black cards. It was still likely over 80 cards though. Again, go noobs. I don't remember too much about this deck except that it was what I used to win my first game. I remember I killed Dustin with a Gravebane Zombie enchanted with Unholy Strength. I want to point out that I had been playing for about a month at this point and had made a few trips to the local card shop and raided the $0.10 common bin a few times. I had played for a month before I won my first game. So much for Dustin taking it easy on a noob.
The next magic memory I have is at the mall with Dustin. Visions and Weatherlight packs are on sale and I bought a few. I pulled a Mana Web and an Archangel. I still have both cards (the angel is even in a deck right now). Mana Web will become important later on as well.
The missing card days
The next year I was playing magic more often. I played during lunch, during Spanish class with Dustin, and in the Games Club after school. These times were probably when I was playing the most magic. My collection still sucked because I hadn't bought any cards online yet and the local card shop had closed so I wasn't buying any singles. I was basically just buying 2-3 boosters a week of the newest expansion (Tempest block at this time). Because of this my decks still sucked and I still didn't win much. But at least the games were closer than they used to be.
It was also around this time that I made my first deck that actually had a decent shot of winning without just getting really lucky. It was a mono-black deck with all my best black cards. It had a massive amount of recursion including Gravebane Zombies, Disturbed Burials, a Volrath's Stronghold, and a Mortuary. The creatures still weren't all that great but I think I had a Sengir Vampire or two and some other semi-decent creatures like Junún Efreet. Really the deck was only even semi-decent because Disturbed Burial was tech. The deck was 83 cards though so I can't be too proud of it. Note that I had been playing almost a year and I still couldn't seem to keep a deck to 60 cards. At least this time added extra land to make up for it.
This is also the time period when something bad happened. My brother took all my cards not in a deck. Well almost all of them. He left the white bordered blue and white cards and all of my Tempest and Stronghold. My mom didn't know I was playing yet and I wasn't sure she would approve so I didn't tell her right away. My brother of course denied it but that said nothing. Many times I would ask him if he had taken something of mine and he would get angry yell and scream and say he never touched it. I would then find it in his backpack. Even when caught he would still deny everything. He had the same reaction when he was innocent as well so it just seemed he was always guilty. Well back to the missing cards there wasn't really anything valuable except one Regrowth which isn't even that valuable money-wise but it still put a large damper on deckbuilding. During these times I had to make due with what I had. I was doing much Rootwalla beatdown and also playing a lot more white and blue since more of those colors were left. Still not too much though so the decks really sucked. Eventually to help out Dustin gave me a large stack of his black extras. Most of these were crappy commons but it was still better than nothing. At this point more than 75% of my collection was black cards. I was playing a lot of black during these times. Actually I had really been playing black since I started. I played the other colors every once in a while but not very often. A few months later my mom found my cards in her closet behind all of her shoes. A few cards were still missing but enough of my collection was back that I could build decent decks again. Well decent for me at the time anyway.
This is also the time I built my first synergetic decks. The first was based around Contemplation and Shrieking Drake. That combo basically lets you gain life equal to the amount of blue mana you have. In the process of making this deck I discovered Intruder Alarm. With Shrieking Drake you can pay a blue mana to untap all of your creatures. I added Tims and Mana Elves to produce the necessary mana so the deck could go infinite. I also discovered Aluren later during the same day which allowed the deck to go infinite at instant speed and without any mana. After the deck was finished (I proxied the cards I didn't have) it was able to generate infinite mana, infinite damage, infinite creatures (via Lab Rats), and gain infinite life. With infinite mana pretty much any spell with buyback can go infinite but the only ones I really remember using were Lab Rats and Capsize. This was my first true combo deck and I came up with it at least a week or two before Intruder Alarm combos started popping up in the internet. The deck was slow and extremely fragile but when it won it won big.
At this point was also when I started buying cards off ebay. I bought a bunch of Exodus cards as well as a few Shivan Dragons, Nightmares, and Royal Assassins. At the time I had to use my parents ebay account so I couldn't spend much plus it was a bit of a hassle to get money orders for payment.
Mana Web and Urza's Saga
I think the first time I started to really get better at the game was when Urza's Saga came out. I bought a lot of Urza's Saga. More than any set that I have bought to date. Urza's Saga happened to have a lot of broken cards in it. I happened to pull some of them. This combined with trading with Dustin (who also bought a lot of Urza's Saga) meant I had even more good Urza's Saga. About once a month the Games Club would have a Magic tournament. The format varied a lot and was often something wacky. The first one I went to was a chaos multiplayer game. I got third (only out of like 6 so it wasn't to exciting) and ended up winning my first Royal Assassin. I won a Bayou in another multiplayer game as well (which I eventually lost) and also a pack of red sleeves. I still have the sleeves. My Really Big Red multiplayer deck is in them right now.
Another tournament was Urza's block constructed (which just consisted of Urza's Saga at this point). I built a red/green aggro deck with Endless Wurms that stayed around because of Rancor, Fortitude, and Fiery Mantle. The deck also had Child of Gaea, Cradle Guard, Viashino Outrider, Vug Lizard, and Winding Wurm to round out the creature base. These creatures were very large for their cost and could be a beating. I used Arc Lightning for removal. I ended up winning the tournament. The prize was a free entry into a large tournament at Neutral Ground (Grand Prix San Francisco 1999). I went to the tournament. I had never even heard of limited before. I opened amazing packs (Shivan Hellkite and Stroke of Genius) and built a crappy deck with them (it was 45 cards and had a lot of good limited cards like Pendrell Drake in the sideboard). I didn't do so well but had a lot of fun (and went home with some broken rares). One lesson to learn from this is that if you ever imagine you would care about your DCI rating don't let your first tournament be a 40k event. My limited rating dropped like 40 points that day and I still haven't gotten them back (not that I have really tried). Also I didn't know at the time but my round 4 loss was to Chad Ellis.
My next big deck idea was inspired by a Weatherlight card I had pulled, Mana Web. My idea was to combine it with as many cards that force your opponent to pay mana as possible. The first version of the deck was mostly proxies and was also quite terrible. It ran cards like Lim-Dûl’s Hex and Seizures, both proxied. I even had to proxy Psychic Venom. The deck was pretty bad at this point but with a Psychic Venom on an opponent's land Mana Web + Lim-Dûl's Hex meant that the opponent was not likely to avoid damage. The deck didn't start to get better until Urza's Saga was released with a bunch of cards that helped the deck considerably. The biggest two were Slow Motion and Disruptive Student. With Mana Web in play, Slow Motion would often make an opponent choose between tapping out during his upkeep or losing his creature. With Psychic Venom and Propaganda you became pretty safe from attacks and were whittling down your opponent's life total. Mahamoti Djinn finished him off. There were many versions of the deck and I was always experimenting but what I consider to be the classic version looked something like this:
The break and rebirth
Later that year Dustin graduated. This pretty much ended my playing Magic at school. I didn't see much at all of Dustin during that year and pretty much only had contact with him through AIM. I wasn't really missing that much magic-wise though. This was the year of Masques block (and the tail end of Urza's, I didn't buy much Destiny). While the lack of anyone to play with was the reason I didn't play the boring set certainly didn't help. During this time period, while I didn't play any magic, was when I started reading about tournament magic. This was my first taste of magic strategy.
The point I started back up again was when Invasion came out but I don't think the set really was the reason. The real reason was that Dustin came back and I actually had someone to play with. During that time our magic group met at Coffee Cavern of Friday night and played for a few hours. We had an Invasion league going which we added packs to when other sets came out. I started buying cards again and putting together more decks. I think this is the point where I started to close the gap between Dustin and I play skill-wise. He was still better than me but not by as much. My only decent decks were still Mana Web and mono-black aggro-control decks (we always called them Stupid Black decks). For the most part my decks were still a bunch of cards I thought were good and only a few followed a theme that helped the deck stay focused.
Invasion block was also my first experience with drafting. I had played sealed a few times but didn't draft until one of Sam's birthdays. It was an IPA draft and the easiest way I could help people remember the specific draft would be to say "Fungal Shambler!?".
After we stopped playing on Friday nights I didn't get a chance to really play with anyone but Dustin. Kim's cards were "in the closet" at the time and it took her like 6 months to dig them out. We could occasionally grab a couple extra people for a draft but it was only on a rare occasion. While we still played magic it wasn't all that often and I didn't really buy many cards during this time period (this was during mid-late Oddessy block and very early Onslaught).
Magic Online came out around this time in beta. In testing the beta you were given a certain amount of money you could spend a the store each day (something like $50-100, they tweaked the number often). You spend that however you wanted on packs/tickets or anything. Basically this meant both being able to get a complete Magic Online collection after about a week and also being able to draft for free. I did a lot of drafting online during these times though since it was free and I didn't need the cards I often dropped when I got bored rather than stay for the entire draft. This usually meant I dropped after round one regardless of whether I won or lost. With an entire set of type 2 legal cards at my disposal I was also able to do a lot of experimenting with deckbuilding without the limitation of a crappy collection. I started building many stupid decks (I'm still fond of my Familiar Ground / Goblin War Drums deck) but eventually I began to try experimenting with more powerful decks. One in particular was Mono Black Control. It was a creatureless control deck with an enormous amount of creature removal and Corrupt as the win condition. With Cabal Coffers you could power expensive spells like Planar Portal. It felt a bit like the old Necro decks. Eventually I looked at the decks the pro players were playing and found that this was very similar to the builds they were using. This prompted me to try building other tournament decks to see what it feels like to play with them. I still was quite bad (my Psychatog deck didn't run Psychatog and instead just tried to do 20 damage with Thieving Magpie and Shadowmage Infiltrator). I never really ended up with anything good and was always getting smashed in the serious players room but I learned a lot about deckbuilding and eventually applied it to my real cards.
Until this point my decks were usually just a collection of creatures and spells that were good/cool. Only a few of my decks had real themes to them (like Mana Web) and many of the decks were just plain bad. After messing with the Magic Online beta I began to get a better feel for deckbuilding and decided to take a whack at building a Mono Black Control deck in real life. It started simple enough Duress and Hymn to Tourach for discard, Nevinyrral's Disk and Diabolic Edict for creature control, Necropotence for the draw engine, and Drain Life for the win condition. Over the next few months I worked almost exclusively on this deck. I bought more cards for it like Mutilate and tuned it and made it very powerful. In fact too powerful. This deck absolutely dominated the environment. I had it put together long enough to play like 100 games with it. Out of those 100+ games I lost maybe 6. In our environment this deck was just unstoppable. To make matters worse we also ignored the restrictions on Necropotence and ran multiple copies in the deck (because it is a "fun" card). Dustin had also build one and played his quite often to. Eventually we almost just stopped playing other decks because they just couldn't beat this one. Eventually we both realized this and stopped playing MBC for the sake of our enjoyment of the game. We both played it one more time each in type 3 but haven't tried it casually since. Maybe someday I'll throw the deck together just to show you guys how scary it is (or at least write an article about it). Just for reference it looked like this:
This is also about the time I started perusing the casual forums on the magicthegathering.com message boards. I helped people with their decks and thus saw a lot of decks both good and bad and went through the process of tweaking them to be more efficient. This helping others with their decks has had a huge impact on my own deckbuilding. My decks became more consistent and powerful.
The next change came about when we actually began to have something you could actually call a group again. Kim finally got her cards out of her closet, BJ was around more often, and Branden had popped up and began to play.
Type 3 and Modern Times:
This is when we began playing type 3. I don't have to go into much detail here because by this point you were all around. Really the thing I got to practice in type 3 that I didn't elsewhere was metagaming and sideboarding. We don't use sideboards in casual games (though some groups do) so this was something I didn't really know how to do. Unfortunately since our environment was completely different each week I never got the hang of it anyway.
That brings us to present day and the end of the article. It wound up much longer than I expected.