Flow Of Ideas - A Family Of Magic
I'll always remember the beginning of my first Magic trip with the whole family. My father led the way through the airport with me, my mother, and my brother Tanner in tow. Our suitcases were packed for the trip ahead with a mix of cards, clothes, and sightseeing guides. We were a family brought together by Magic.
I had taken long trips for Magic without my dad before for past JSS Championships—the yearly premier event of the 16-and-under circuit—in San Diego and Kansas City, but this was the first time he was able to come. He owned an electrical contracting company, and business always seemed to be booming, meaning he could seldom take time off.
My mom had always been the one mostly in the mix of my playing. She had the heart and good spirit to fully support me and my brother in whatever we wanted to do, even if it was flying across the country for a strange card game she didn't quite understand.
My dad was a different story.
He didn't quite get it yet. My mom had pitched the trip as an excuse for the family to go on a vacation, and that was how he saw it. The game was of no consequence; in fact I'm sure he would have preferred that my brother and I had invested our time in something like sports, or business, or something that could eventually lead to a job. Magic was just an expensive hobby that led nowhere.
There was an afternoon shortly after I had learned the game when my brother and I were playing a game on our bedroom floor. We didn't know completely how the rules worked or have any concept of strategy, but I had already been dazzled by the idea of a Pro Tour. I had a vision of success.
My dad walked past the door in the middle of our game and made some comment about how he didn't believe we were still playing. He asked what the point of playing this game so extensively was. I told him that I was going to win a lot of money someday, and he just laughed and walked away. And I certainly can't blame him. If I were in his shoes, I would have probably thought the same.
His involvement in the game had stayed in that vein, a mixture of skepticism and confusion. But this family trip to Baltimore would change all that.
The first time you walk into the hall of a major tournament like a Grand Prix or Pro Tour, there's this feeling. This larger than life feeling when you realize that the game is more than just the fourteen other people at your local FNM. The noise of packs cracking and players talking drowns out all other sounds; there are fifty different judges in black shirts monitoring the floor; and you're passing by players speaking other languages as you walk down each aisle. It causes your entire perception of the game to expand.
I was there when he experienced that for the first time. It was something that wouldn't completely unfold for years, but I could tell he was peering through the same crack in the Magic doorway that I had looked through at my first major event.
There was a moment that caught me off guard. I was just sitting down at a table, filling out my decklist for a grinder. I had no idea why he was in the hall or why he was wearing a grin on his face. “Just checking everything out,” he replied when I asked. I could tell he was just as wrapped up in the surroundings as I was.
His next action lasted only seconds. Just afterward, pairings for my grinder would be called, and I would stand up to go play. Minutes later, I would be shuffling cards. But in this one moment, something connected; something so comically phrased, yet true, was planted in my mind and grew into an eternal maxim.
My dad glanced over at my decklist. He tapped the “lands” column with his finger. “I don't know anything about this game. But I do that know that real estate is important. You gotta have enough prime real estate.”
Before JSS Champs started the next day, I added a land to my deck. My manabase ran smoother than ever all weekend, and I left that tournament $2,350 richer.
It was my first money finish. Later on, my dad told me how proud he was of me—a phrase I wasn't sure I had ever heard him utter. For weeks afterward, he would bring up my finish and how highly I was rated when I was around his friends. Suddenly, plans for upcoming Magic events would be brought up at the dinner table. Everything had changed. We became a family of Magic.
Though my dad's involvement continued, he often provided advice from the sidelines. Consolation and/or congratulation dinners, advice for travelling, and deep thoughts about where I was going with Magic were some of his specialties. We'd go sightseeing together on our trips, but he didn't enter the tournament area that often. He respected it was my domain.
My mom, on the other hand, had a more on-site approach. She was my cheerleading squad, food runner, and second conscience all wrapped in one.
Magic is something few parents might have embraced. The culture of the game tends to conflict with most parents' views of what their children should be doing, and I felt incredibly fortunate that she was able to look over that high barrier and notice my passion. And once she dipped her toe in, she never pulled it out.
For a long time, she would hang around at events. You probably have an image in your head of what you've seen of mothers at events before, the odd moms out that sit in a corner doing work on a laptop. You might cringe and feel sorry for me.
That wasn't her.
She would strike up conversations with players and make friends, keeping track of people from tournament to tournament. Many began to look forward to seeing her. (The allure of free snacks certainly didn't hurt either. At the recent SCG Open Series in Seattle, she even brought freshly baked cookies for the SCGLive crew.)
My mom was the one who introduced me to several Magic players I still stay in touch with today. I'll never forget the time she returned from a trip to Subway with a sandwich for me—and also brought back Dan Lanthier, rising Canadian superstar. “He needs a place to stay for GP Seattle,” she told me. “Can we fit him in?”
But by far my favorite interactions came a couple years earlier.
For GP Vancouver, a swarm of Magic players including the likes of Owen Turtenwald, Ben Lundquist, Zack Hall, DJ Kastner, and a couple other friends of mine descended on my house. I don't know what they expected, but I highly doubt it was anything like what happened. The following events all occurred:
-All meals were freshly cooked, including a full breakfast complete with combinations of sizzling bacon, fruit, and waffles.
-After asking all the players about their tastes and dietary decisions, a grocery run for them was made.
-Lunch was purchased for everyone on the way up to Vancouver.
-Everyone was given more than enough bedding to make sure they could sleep at a reasonable level of comfort.
I didn't think too much of it at the time because to me that was just my mom being my mom, but only later did I realize how much of a one-of-a-kind tournament experience that was. In any case, this all led up to one of my favorite quotes ever.
With Pro Tour Hollywood the next day, I walked into a hotel room where Owen and DJ were playtesting. The very first question wasn't about the format, decks, borrowing cards, or anything of the nature. It wasn't something I even remotely expected. It was: “How is your Next Level Mom doing?”
That's a nickname I'll never stop using.
My dad taught me how to be competitive from a young age, but it was Mom that taught me to always have fun. It's something I've made sure to never lose even through all of these years.
Amidst flying to events and chasing points, it's easy to forget what captivated us in the first place. Is fighting through a tournament all day really worth it if you hate everything the entire time? If you're not going to have fun, you could just do some menial labor job for nine hours and have guaranteed money to show for it.
After every tournament, the first question she asked was not how I did, or if I won, or who I beat. It was, “Did you have fun?” After that was out of the way, we could move onto the second priority. Whenever I'm tilting or had a bad tournament, I still ask myself this question first. If the answer is no, I made a mistake somewhere far beyond just missing an on-board kill. I messed up somewhere far more important.
After my first PTQ top 8, I took my sparkling Sensei's Divining Top Top 8 pin home with me and showed it off. I wasn't sure what to do with it. “Put it on your playmat for good luck and a reminder to have fun,” Mom told me.
That collection has grown. If you've ever seen me play a match at a tournament, you'll notice a playmat full of PTQ Top 8 pins. I've long outgrown the novelty of them. But whenever I look down, there they are: my reminders to have fun.
My parents had their differences in opinion of what mattered, both in life and in how they thought we should approach Magic. But our family of Magic was strong enough that it didn't matter. No matter what the major issue of the month was, when it came to time for a major tournament, it was all set aside in the name of rallying behind me and my brother. We became a unified team.
My family has had more of an influence on my Magic play than anyone, and out of the three of us, nobody has had more of a direct impact than my brother Tanner. From watching him play, I learned more over time than any other person.
He was the only person there from the very beginning. He sat across from me during my first game, played under the dim light of an NBA game on the television set. We discovered the game's secrets together. We played in our first draft, built our first decks, and made our first trade together—Irrigation Ditch for Tinder Farm, after an hour of discussing if it was fair.
Neither of us could get enough of the game. I could tell he saw the same things in his mind as I did. We both had dreams of the game's highest levels of competition in our heads. He was the one that pushed us into the competitive scene when he won a JSS qualifier in 2003. And despite being two years younger and playing the same amount as me, he advanced himself quicker than I could keep up with.
Most people have to work hard to do well at Magic. They playtest rigorously, study the game's theory, and endlessly analyze the format to try and carve out the space for the necessary information in their mind. But there are the lucky few who are naturally gifted and can instantly see the right play, as though it were painted in yellow. My brother fell into the latter.
He makes plays I'd never even see. When we would play Momir, he blocks in very unusual ways I wouldn't expect but provides a subtle advantage that would beat me in the long game. When we would play control mirrors, he always knew the perfect spells to let counter and resolve in every situation. He even learned how to mind trick people at some point: I'll never forget the time that, playing for a JSS qualification slot, he tricked a Heartbeat Combo opponent into spending all of his green mana while he was in the middle of going off. (Meaning he couldn't cast Early Harvest to continue his combo.)
Normally, the younger brother tends to live in the shadow of the older one. That may have unfortunately been true with us in other areas like at home or with friends, but in the world of Magic there was an interesting bit of role reversal.
When Tanner was twelve and beating up kids for JSS scholarship money, the local PTQ ringers were telling him he could easily qualify for the Pro Tour if he tried. That he could be the next big thing. Once, the owner of a local store who was a proficient judge and active member of the community at the time took my mother aside to speak with her. I overheard a conversation I'll never forget.
My mother asked if everything was all right. He nodded yes. “I actually wanted to talk to you about your son. Tanner has a lot of potential. I think you should forego the JSS and get him involved in PTQs as soon as possible.
“What about Gavin?” she asked.
“Gavin is alright, yeah,” he said. “But with some hard work and time, Tanner could become one of the best players to ever play the game.”
As we grew older, his play continued to improve. At a point, it even seemed as though the only reason he was losing was because he chose to handicap himself with his deck choice, valuing fun over power. And even then, his results were incredible. For one example, he played an Intruder Alarm-Lifespark Spellbomb-Forbidden Orchard-kill spell deck for months and rattled off an absurd number of wins and local tournament victories, considering the quality of the combo.
Despite how well he did at local events, he never put any work or thought into larger events, usually opting to play his fun decks and ended up faring poorly as a result. When the JSS stopped, he more or less stopped playing in tournaments. But there was that GPT last year…
There was a GPT in my hometown. It was close by, and I wanted the byes, so I asked if he would be interested in playing and then conceding if we played because I needed the byes. He agreed, and I gave him Mono-Red Burn as he requested.
And so there we were, we'd both sliced through the field, and we met in the semifinals. It was just like old times. We used to always get paired against each other in almost every tournament we played no matter how large or small, and this was no exception. I expected the concession since that was the point of him playing, making it an easy route to the finals for me.
“Nah. I think I'm going to beat you, then win the tournament, and go to the GP for fun.”
I was a little taken aback. “Well, good luck then.”
“You don't wish me good luck also?”
“Nope. The secret to winning with Goblin Guide is to never wish your opponents good luck.”
(And for the record, he won the tournament.)
Even now, he still finds new ways to surprise me.
Not long after we had started playing, we started making our own custom Magic sets to play with. Our design skills were as good as any new player who is also under 13 might have been—which is to say, horrendous.
We made rainbow lands that tapped to draw cards and four-mana 6/6 fliers that discarded cards in your opponent's hand, to name a few. But it was fun nonetheless, and ever since I told him I wanted to work in Magic R&D all those years ago, he has supported me ever since. He's told people that I was on my way to my dream job for years. Even though he grew tired of the game and has found a different path for himself, he still keeps track of what I do.
For that matter, they all still keep track of what I'm doing with Magic. Just differently than before.
We were a family of Magic. But times change.
When I left home, I took the world of Magic with me. I grew busy with life. I began to travel on my own. My trips back home became less and less frequent, and life back home began to change. Business at my dad's company dropped with the economy. My mom stopped showing up to tournaments. The tension between my parents grew. My brother set down the game and moved away.
But still, everyone follows what I do. They call me wondering how my tournaments have been going. They ask where I'm heading next. For brief moments, I catch glimpses of my family of Magic.
My dad listens as I tell him about my adventures in Philadelphia. My mom asks how all of the people she knows are doing. My brother texts me and asks if I can play a quick game of Momir. And each time, just for a second, my head is back in that airport. I'm following my family as they lead the way through. My heart begins to race. I can feel the excitement of a new adventure.
This article is dedicated to Mom, Dad, and Tanner.
Rabon on Magic online, @GavinVerhey on twitter