What you're about to hear is my story from the StarCityGames.com Invitational. I couldn't put it into words last week because I wasn't yet convinced of its authenticity. You see, everyone to whom I've told the story has assured me that I only dreamed it. For a time, I allowed myself to believe so much; indeed, that night had every quality of a dream.
It had every quality of a dream except for one, but it's that one aspect that makes me certain that it was real. You see, even the most vivid of dreams fade from memory with time, but the events of this Friday night have remained clear and fresh in my mind, as I'm now sure they will until the day I die. I can still see every feature on the faces of my nocturnal visitors, and each one makes me shudder.
I went to the tournament site only briefly on Friday evening, to pick up the three Seachrome Coasts I needed to finish my Standard U/W Control deck, which I was going to play in the main event the next day. The night was cold, and when I returned home, I closed and locked the door and window, before I sat down to resleeve my deck. Finally, I climbed into bed, but I couldn't help flipping through the cards as I lay there. The Think Twices and Dissipates didn't give me the same confidence that I often feel the night before a tournament. Nevertheless, the decision had been made, and it was too late to change. Too late to write a new decklist. Too late to find new cards… Too late to still be awake with the tournament starting so early the next morning. I switched off the light and was soon asleep.
I awoke at midnight. That is to say, I was awakened at midnight by a bright light shining through underneath my door. Exhausted and annoyed, I tried pulling the blankets over my head; I tried covering my face with the pillow, but I simply could not hide from this light. With the tired resignation of a man who's lost the hope of a peaceful sleep, I got up and went to find the source of the otherworldly glow.
I opened the bedroom door a sliver at a time, but even so the light was blinding. I had to feel my way along the wall, down the hallway towards the dining room, where I finally discovered the light's origin. It was the monitor of a desktop computer, perched on the table, and I could see the eerie silhouette of a figure sitting in front of it. “What are you doing here?” I asked in a tone of voice born from equal parts fear, accusation, and bewilderment. As my eyes adjusted to the light, I saw an unmistakable brown corduroy jacket and a pair of oval-rimmed glasses; surprise now shook my voice as well, “Aren't you two-time Magic Online Champion, Bing Luke?”
“I'm also the Ghost of MTG Past. I'm here to help you, Reid.” I stared at Bing, speechless, for some time, until he broke the silence again. “I can read your thoughts, my friend. You're doubting your senses. You think you're seeing things because of some undigested Chipotle from dinner. You don't believe in me.”
“You can't read anything!” I answered. My momentary awe had worn off, and I was now able to speak, “I believe that you're an odd man with too much time on your hands and you followed me to North Carolina as a practical joke. You're not any kind of ghost!”
Bing turned back to face his computer. As he did so, one of the chairs slid out from under the dining room table of its own accord and, as if guided by invisible hands, positioned itself next to Bing's, facing the computer. “Sit down,” he said, “I have some replays to show you.”
I sat. “Replays?” I asked, “Magic Online replays? What are they? When are they from?”
“Hang on,” Bing answered. Clearly he wanted to let his videos speak for themselves. “I forgot to update the program after the server downtime.” Magic: The Gathering Online was open and was “copying files.” It told us that it was on number 7 of 1,000,000.
Time passed, and soon the mystique of the floating chair was lost on me, and I was just bored. “Some magical ghost,” I said sarcastically, “you can read minds and move furniture, but you still have to wait for MTGO like the rest of us.” I got no response. I tried to strike up a conversation, asking Bing about his job and his family, but he cut me off abruptly, “Let's just wait for it.”
After who knows how long, Bing nudged me awake. I lifted my head off my forearm and wiped the drool on my pajama pants. My uninvited guest was scrolling through his replays so fast I didn't have time to read a single word on the screen. Apparently he found the one he was looking for because he stopped and double clicked on it.
My friends, mysterious lights and floating chairs are something, but I would not be wasting your time with this story if they were the strangest things I saw that night before the StarCityGames.com Invitational. No, they weren't the strangest things at all. Baron Sengir's Throne could come flying through my window as I write this and I wouldn't bat an eye after the things I've seen.
When the replay opened, I didn't see the green felt background of Magic Online; I saw my old college dorm room complete with all my posters—Fight Club, the Pink Floyd Back Catalogue, the one with the two girls kissing—God, was I a nerd! Right there in the middle of everything was a younger me, wearing a popped collar and playing Magic Online.
Bing's mystical computer screen seemed not to care about the normal rules of dimensions and display. At once I could see all four corners of the room and every detail on the computer at which the younger me was sitting. I watched myself cast Jace, the Mind Sculptor on turn 3, fueled by a Lotus Cobra, and set up for a Grave Titan on the next turn. It was the old Standard B/U/G deck that I played before New Phyrexia came out.
“Do you remember this deck, Reid?” Bing asked me.
“Remember it? I could recite the decklist from memory!” Seeing Oracle of Mul Daya and Jace, the Mind Sculptor play land and land, draw card after card, made me giddy. All I wanted was to do was cheat a Titan into play on turn 4 and watch my opponent squirm.
Bing closed the replay and opened a new one. Now I saw myself at my parents' house, drinking hot cocoa and playing Extended Stoneforge Bant. I led, on the play, with Birds of Paradise, then played a Knight of the Reliquary and rode it to victory against a U/W Control deck. A message popped up “reiderrabbit has won the tournament.”
“Yeah, it ‘makes you feel like you're on the play when you're going second and makes you feel unbeatable when you're going first.' Didn't you used to say that, Reid?” I nodded, and he continued, “strange to have forgotten it…”
Bing and his magical computer showed me more replays: Valakut, Big Zoo, Mythic, R/U/G. By the end I was too excited to sit still or think straight. How could I sleep for the tournament the next morning!? “Spirit,” I addressed Bing with a newfound respect, “I'm sorry I doubted you. Thank you for coming and showing me all these happy Magic Online replays.”
“I didn't come to cheer you up,” said the Ghost of MTG past, “I came to stop you from making a big mistake. Tell me, Reid, what do all of these, your favorite decks, have in common?”
“They're all green?” I asked, unsure of myself.
“They're all green with mana acceleration. Decks like these can play more powerful cards than decks that stick to one land per turn. They have the potential for powerful nut draws, but they also have live topdecks in any late-game situation.”
Bing's explanation made sense to me, but I still wasn't sure the exact reason for his visit. “What are you getting at, Bing? Why do spirits walk the Earth, and why do they come to me?”
Before he could answer, though, Bing and I were interrupted by the tolling of a grim and unearthly bell, signaling one o'clock. The sound at once seemed distant, but also to fill my whole body, as though it closed in from every corner of the room. I got the distinct feeling that my mortal ears were never supposed to hear it, and it filled me with terror. It seemed also to bother the Ghost deeply.
Three times the bell rang, and with each chime the pallor in Bing's face deepened. His anxiety was infectious, and I asked him, “What's the matter, Bing?! Does your soul become trapped in limbo if you stay out past one o'clock!?”
“No,” he stood up abruptly, “but there's a Daily Event I wanna play.” The mysterious visitor put his right arm into the sleeve of his long black coat and adeptly swung it around his back. The coat swirled around him, but what began as black wool soon became mere shadows. In the blink of an eye, the darkness surrounded Bing, and he was gone; his computer was seamlessly transformed back into the bowl of fruit which had always stood on the dining room table. Curiously, the light from the computer screen remained—at least long enough to help me find my way down the hallway back to my bed. And then it was dark, and I was alone.
We all have our quirks and our habits, heaven knows. A particular one of mine is that I always close and lock my window before going to sleep, as sure as I brush my teeth or switch off the lights. Can anyone explain to me, then, how at two o'clock on that Saturday morning, I awoke to a fierce wind blowing through my open window? It spilled my U/W Control deck, which had been resting on my bedside table, all over the floor and ruined any chance I had had of an unbroken night of sleep. I laboriously got out of bed, walked to the window, and closed it firmly.
Maybe it had failed to latch shut because no sooner had I gotten back to bed and pulled up the covers than yet again the window blew open and allowed the angry, destructive wind back into my bedroom. Annoyed now, I walked to the window, slammed it shut, closed the lock, and tested to make sure everything was secure.
I walked back to my bed, but this time the persistent window didn't even allow me time to lie down before blowing open again. This time the wind was louder and more aggressive than before. I whirled around and began to stomp toward the window a third time when I heard a voice behind me, “You're not too quick on the uptake, huh Duke.”
I turned around, startled, and recognized my visitor right away from the familiar tuft of bleached blond hair. Open Series grandmaster Gerry Thompson had apparently made himself at home; he was sitting in my armchair, with his feet propped up on a marble notebook on my coffee table. “Let me guess,” I said to him, “you're supposed to be the Ghost of MTG Present.”
“You're supposed to mulligan one-landers. You're supposed to attack before you play your creatures,” he said, apparently offended by my comment, “I am the Ghost of MTG Present.”
Unsure how to respond and not knowing if this new visitor would extend an invitation as Bing had, I went to take a seat at the table with him. I pulled up a second chair and bent my knees to sit, but I saw Gerry roll his eyes. Another gust of wind passed through the room, ruffling the sheets and curtains. For a moment, I would have sworn that his goatee was made from restless wisps of flame, dancing on his chin, but maybe it was only the breeze. I heard a bang, but this time rather than the shutters on my window, it was the door on my always-locked liquor cabinet that flew open and slammed against the wall. “You could just ask,” I said to the Ghost.
I poured two drinks and returned to sit down. My guest had picked up his marble notebook and was now scribbling in it like a madman. Mozart, having just received divine inspiration for the Requiem, would look like he was doing his accounting homework if you sat him next to Gerry T writing a decklist—such was the artist's (Gerry of course) passion.
Soon he finished, placed the open notebook on the table, and picked up his drink. “Take a look at this,” he said to me and motioned to the notebook. I looked at what was on the page but had to lean in closer to read the childish scrawl. As I did so, the sentences began to shift and swirl on the page, soon changing in color and forming crystal clear images.
I saw Adam Prosak sleeving up his Illusions deck—his Merfolk Looters and Midnight Hauntings giving me pause. As he got to the end, I watched him put down one, two, three, four Moorland Haunts, and I realized that this was an opponent I couldn't beat in the Standard portion the next day.
Mr. Prosak faded from my view, and I saw David Bauer and Alex Bertoncini playing a heated Illusions mirror under the scorching lights of the StarCityGames.com feature match area. I saw a crowd of dozens, maybe hundreds watching intently, and I knew I was seeing what might come to be a top eight match.
Gerry's voice startled me, “How's your Illusions matchup?” I stared at him blankly, not knowing how to respond. “You don't even know, do you? Well I'll tell you; it's horrendous.” He went on, “Even if your pathetic Oblivion Rings somehow manage to keep you alive, you'll lose to Moorland Haunt. How can you finish a game? Are you gonna play Sun Titan and let them copy it with Phantasmal Image? Wurmcoil Engine, Consecrated Sphinx against a deck with four Vapor Snag and four Snapcaster Mage? Don't make me laugh!”
“I get it,” I said curtly. Does anyone like being made to feel dumb?
Gerry turned a page in his notebook, and now I saw Caleb Durward playing with his Esper Control deck. He dispatched opponent after opponent in StarCityGames.com Open tournaments, and with each one I became less and less confident in myself. I saw Christopher Hackelman practicing with Solar Flare, Orrin Beasley goldfishing U/B Control, and Nick Spagnolo buying Nephalia Drownyards.
“Do you recognize these guys, Duke? They're all great players, playing control decks that are more finely tuned than yours and better for blue mirrors. You know what else? They have more practice with their decks than you do.”
“What are you saying, Spirit?” I asked him, even though I knew the answer.
“You'll lose to them!” He pulled no punches, the whole time he was with me that night.
“You're not as friendly as the last Ghost,” I said to Gerry.
“Just wait,” he responded. Before I could question him he turned another page, and I saw new pictures in his notebook. This time I couldn't make out any faces, but I saw table after table filled with Wolf Run decks, Mono Red, and Tempered Steel. “These decks can decide games by turn 4. What are you gonna be doing on turn 4? Flashing back a Think Twice?” Gerry made a good point. “What happens when something goes wrong—you miss a land drop or something? What can go right with that deck you're planning to play tomorrow?”
“You're right, Gerry.”
“U/W Control sucks. Nobody in the world could win with it!”
“You're right, Spirit, I'll not Gainsay it.”
Abruptly, the Ghost of MTG Present slammed shut the notebook. He wore an impressive watch on his right arm, but it was his naked left wrist that Gerry stared at as he said, “It's time for me to go.” He finished his drink, tucked his notebook under his arm, and stood up, “I have to go tell Kibler not to play U/B Infect.” He dematerialized with a pop and a giant torrent of wind that overturned furniture, stripped the blankets off my bed, and left every door and window in the room wide open. For a moment, his fiery goatee remained, suspended in thin air, but soon that too was gone, and again I was alone.
When I awoke at three o'clock, there was no bright light, no loud wind. There was only dead silence and suffocating darkness. Nevertheless, I knew that I was in the presence of a third Spirit; the uneasiness in my heart could not have been caused by anything else. I sat up in bed, and though I would not have been able to see my hand in front of my face, I could see the figure in front of me clearly. He had his own, different kind of darkness that made him stand out from the impenetrable but natural blackness of the night.
Though his StarCityGames.com hoodie was pulled tightly over his head and obscured his features, I knew him clearly for past, present, and future pro Gerard Fabiano. “What's with the hood Gerard; did you mess up shaving your sideburns again?” To tell the honest truth, I was not in a joking mood, my friends. I tried to be clever as a means of distracting my own attention, for the specter disturbed the very marrow in my bones. He made no response, and I was forced to accept that the situation was solemn as a funeral, “Are you the Ghost of MTG Yet to be Played?”
The spirit nodded and beckoned me towards him. I obeyed his summons and followed him out the door into an unfamiliar hallway—one that had no ceiling, no walls, no end, and as I looked over my shoulder to confirm, no beginning. We walked down the hallway, the Ghost and I, and I said to him, “Gerard, everyone is telling me I'm gonna do badly with U/W Control, but you have faith in me. Don't you?” I was looking for reassurance from my friend, but something was wrong. The normally talkative Gerard was as silent as the grave for the whole time I was with him that night.
Eventually—don't ask me how, for we never left that strange hallway—we came to be at the tournament venue, which I knew from buying my Seachrome Coasts the day before. Only this time, it was packed with people, walking around, looking at the dealer cases, and yes, sitting at numbered tables playing matches of Magic. “Spirit,” I said, “we're seeing the future aren't we? This is the StarCityGames.com Invitational.” He nodded.
As we walked, I spotted first one and then several more of my good friends and tried to walk over to say hello and see how their matches were going. Each time, though, the Ghost motioned me to keep moving, and I had no courage to disobey.
“Spirit,” I said as we walked by the top tables, “I want to see myself; where am I playing?” Gerard motioned to the pairings board, D-F. It was easy to spot because it was pasted on a Garruk banner. I followed him.
I scanned the pairings but where “Duke” should have been, it skipped straight to Durward, who was undefeated with 15 points. “Gerard,” I turned to him, “I don't see my name, what's going on here? Do I oversleep? Do I miss it?”
The Ghost reached a white, fleshless index finger towards the pairings. The finger itself should have given me pause, but what he showed me was far more disturbing. At the very bottom of the sheet…
“No! Spirit!” I whirled around and grabbed him by the shoulders, “This can't be! Tell me how I can change it! Tell me it's not too late to change it!”
In my hysterics, I must have shaken Gerard, whom I was holding by the shoulders, because his hood fell backwards, off of his head. What it revealed was not the face of a man, but a skeleton! The empty eye sockets stared at me with the only thing they were able to express—mocking apathy.
In terror and despair, I had to look away, so I turned back to the pairings board and the Garruk banner. The planeswalker, who had previously been my height, was now eight feet tall, now twelve, now twenty feet tall and growing! He stepped out of his cardboard world, and I sank to my knees, hugging at his boots. I waited for the giant Garruk to crush me or the King of Terrors behind me to take my last breath. Anything to be out of that nightmare! I closed my eyes, muttering again and again, “It can't be too late; it can't be too late…”
With a shudder I opened my eyes to find that I was back in my bedroom. I was on my knees, but instead of the boots of the giant Garruk, I was hugging the posts at the foot of my bed. The morning sunlight shining through my window calmed me instantly, so I ran to the window, threw it open, and popped my head out.
Below my window was a high school-age guy skateboarding on the sidewalk. “Hey kid!” I yelled, “What day is today?”
He gave me a suspicious look but answered my question anyway, “Everybody knows that today is day one of the StarGityGames.com Invitational. Why?”
“Then I'm not too late!” I yelled it for the whole neighborhood to hear. I still had time to change to Wolf Run Ramp Pod for the Standard portion! Without bothering to close the window, I ran across the room, stopping only to shove the would-be U/W Control deck off the night table, all over the floor. I took the stairs three at a time and rushed out onto the street, still in my pajamas, where I met the bewildered teenager.
“Take this,” I said to him, handing him a wad of crumpled bills, “and buy me four Viridian Emissaries and two Birthing Pods! I'll meet you at the tournament.”
I had to ask for help because, like we all so often do, I'd failed to leave myself much time. That day, at least, I knew everything would turn out alright, though. This time I wasn't too late.