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  • Sam

It's Not About the Cards: Part IV


It had been less than a week since I landed in Vegas, yet the days were already blending together like some distant, hazy mirage. Blips of interactions came ringing back into focus, carrying with them the dissonant chorus of overzealous slot machines and the musk of cigarette-stained red carpets. A week without sleep was beginning to take its toll: conversations were tinged with haunting reverb, the kind of topsy-turvy special effect that Hollywood films employ just before the protagonist passes out from a heat stroke. I can’t remember my journey into the convention center on Sunday morning. Somehow I was just, suddenly, there.

Jeremy was gone. Law school beckoned in Missouri, and with his departure went the potential to settle my tiebreakers with both him and Casale. In all fairness, I had cubed more than enough for the weekend, and toting around a cumbersome bookbag filled to the brim with Commander decks would be all for naught if I didn’t jam at least one more game of EDH with fellow enthusiasts. The day prior, Ant took my Feldon deck for a spin against Victor Adame and Balam Najera during the artists’ lunch break, and Palmer even had a shot with my Ruric Thar deck (codenamed ‘Mike & Ike’ in my playgroup back in Austin) post-Proxy cube early Saturday morning. In other words: my friends were making more use out of my cards than I was, and like a Nils Hamm 3/5 Camel, I was doing all the lugging.

The night prior, Linnemann and Tessitore previewed Dreamstealer during their live recording of SnackTime, and in the audience was Chris Stephen, the gentleman behind the CMDTower website and Twitter page. His buddy Brian Dawes was there with him, too, who told us after the show about his affinity for Elves and love of the singleton format.

“I have 32 Commander decks,” said Brian, “Rhys is probably my favorite.”

“We gotta get you that art,” Mike responded (as he does).

Also there was Tony Houst, a Vorthos extraordinaire who introduced himself to me on Thursday and was coincidentally showing up to all the same events that I was attending. As was Cary Barkett, the post-mending expert who tirelessly responds to all of the Twitterverse’s inquiries regarding Magic story. It’s a favorite pastime, though: their goal is to make the narrative more accessible to anyone who is curious. I have yet to mention Cary in this piece despite spending a good chunk of my weekend with them, but it wasn’t until Sunday that we would finally have a moment to dive deeper into the details of the game’s convoluted discourse of what is considered canon. On top of their expansive knowledge about the game's lore, Cary is another person who smiles from the heart. They have the easygoing presence that one could wish for when the going gets tough. While Linnemann and Tessitore lit up the room with their characteristically rambunctious live show, Chris, Brian, Tony, Cary, and I sat together in the stands and laughed along with the antics.

I want to take a moment to thank Tony in particular for exemplifying the power of being fully yourself. Throughout the weekend, he alternated between Magic fan and Tibalt cosplayer, a character that requires a dedication with which any skin-dyeing costumer is most familiar. The devilish Planeswalker is red, after all, and Houst didn’t skimp on the body paint. This left him tinted slightly pink when dressed in citizen’s clothes. In facing my ongoing struggle with embracing Magic in my personal life, I remarked in my previous piece that I admired the authenticity of all the folks around me in Vegas who were paying such a sentiment no heed. In large part, I was talking about Tony. He didn’t know it, and yet he responded with the same words that I saw reflected in his attitude and character at the Grand Prix:

“I have a mono black Skeleton EDH deck,” Cary laughed as we talked favorite decks after the snacks, “It just never dies.”

Finding EDH in Vegas was remarkably easy. The convention center’s layout provided space to casuals via a designated section of round tables for Commander aficionados to flex their creativity and battle down from 40 life together. This area was a boon and should be a staple at any future GP that seeks to bring in business outside of the main event. Months prior, in San Antonio, my group and I struggled to find any table room that wasn’t reserved for side events and ODE’s, which frustrated us out of the building and discouraged us from returning to future tournaments. Conversely, the Commander tables here were buzzing all weekend, and I imagine friendships were galvanized simply due to the accessibility of a reliable space for meeting new people. Here I would spend the majority of my Sunday afternoon and play a few highly-anticipated matches with longtime Twitter acquaintances.

Up to battle first was Josh Lee Kwai, co-host of the Command Zone alongside Jimmy Wong, who was coming off of an ultra busy weekend filled with throwing parties, drafting in bounty events, and even airing a live episode of his show for audience members in the panel arena. The boys invited me on their podcast a few months ago for an interview and also included me as a featured creator in their life tracking app, LifeLinker. I remember listening to the very early episodes of The Command Zone during my downtime before graduate school. Their show accompanied a quiet era in my life spent running in the mountains of Estes Park, Colorado and substitute teaching an hour down the road around the Boulder Valley School District. I have happily observed their explosive growth from afar, and being given the opportunity to be part of it has been pure gravy.

Also fans of the show are Eric Landes and his son Jack: two tournament grinders out of Oregon who have made waves in the community in part because of the youngster’s prowess with the game. Jimmy and Josh have cast the spotlight on Jack on multiple occasions, creating a fun pseudo-guest out of the boy and thereby extending their reach into the families of the community. Even without my back and forth with Eric online, I would know about Jack simply from listening to the show. Of course, they were both necessary inclusions to the playmat, but not before we all shuffled up and brought the heat against the host of the format’s most popular podcast.

“You know what,” said Josh, “I’m going to play a deck with really vague creatures in it, just to make Sam proud.”

“Unstaple your deck, Josh,” I snarked back.

From Josh's bag emerged the infamous “Tim Deck”: a tapping and untapping monster that goes infinite on multiple axes and locks down the board by assembling an army of inconspicuous wizards and enchantments on his lands. Eric brought forth a flavorful Queen Marchesa deck that manipulates players’ life totals, which meant, out of principal, I would have to call upon The King Eternal himself to reclaim the throne once and for all. To boot, I had just purchased a set of new Spirit tokens from the Cardamajigs booth that animate a ghost swinging a sword when tilted up and down and provide an extra source of durdly entertainment while waiting for the action to wheel back around to my side of the board. These tokens look ten times cooler in person, and like stated prior, Rico and his crew have shifted the accessories meta into wide-open territory. As the game went underway, it quickly became clear that our decks were unmatched to Josh’s shenanigans, forcing us all to work together to try to get out from underneath his battalion of tap dancers.

“I’m attacking Sam for 28. Don’t block. Trust me.”

“Hit me!” I responded, spinning my last D20 down to 2.

The plan was to use Eric’s deck to swap my life total for Josh’s as the table’s only out. But given that Lee Kwai’s creatures could also infinitely counter any spells that we cast, our machinations were foiled on board. And with one gigantic swing (that The Command Zone’s editor Terry Robertson caught on camera), Josh eliminated everybody at the table except for me.

“Do me a favor,” I begged, “just hit me with one of my own Spirit tokens for one damage.”

“Whatever you say, man,” he said back.

I spun down to 1.

“I cast a Tim and kill you.”

I spun down to none.

But redemption was nigh! As I hit Josh with some departing knucks, The Stybs hailed me down to another pod that was taking shape at a nearby circle table. Known in the community for his innovative approach to EDH, Adam Styborski has been creating Commander content practically since the beginning, and equally appreciates the corner-case cards that wreck house in the perfect deck. While I was on The Command Zone, I recommended the card ‘Foil’ to the boys, which very much played into Stybs’ wheelhouse:

Also at the table with us were the two hosts of the Flavor Fail podcast, Kenny and Tim. Much like Tony, I met Kenny within the first hours of being in Vegas and had seen him at practically every turn. He told me he admired my work and sought to ask me in person to be on his show. And much like meeting Marcel, there was something so genuine about him: I could tell through quick glances in passing that he was stoked to be at this event. While we all battled, Kenny opened up and told me the heavy story about losing his sister, and moments later, he was caught by surprise when a listener of his show recognized him and asked for an autograph. At the game’s pinnacle, after Tim resolved a Dictate of the Twin Gods, I was able to capitalize on the double damage and eliminate everyone at the table in one fell swoop. My first real victory of the weekend came a mere hours before my flight would take me home.

“Great games. I’m so glad I got to play with you, man,” Kenny said as he shook my hand.

But what did the win matter? I packed up my cards and slowly walked towards the doorways of the convention hall for the final time that weekend. As I paced through the aisles, I saw not a bunch of introverts sitting quietly admiring their collections and shuffling through their binders, but an ensemble of eclectic interests and wildly different backgrounds all gathered together in search for camaraderie. Magic players, I realized, have one giant thing in common: a shared passion for the best game ever made. But that’s just the launching point: we could’ve banned cards from the conventional hall that weekend and I still would’ve emerged a happier person for having met the people that engage with this hobby. So often we joke that Magic is a lifestyle. If that’s true, I want to get better at representing that aspect of the game outside of the stores and convention centers where it is welcomed and understood. It is up to me to bridge that gap and remold the stigma that keeps me checkmated in my silence.

The last thing on my agenda on Sunday night was to help pack up the inaugural Magic Art Show. Moments before the crew shut the doors for the final time, an influx of players, judges, and significant others moved through the gallery to admire the work of the artists who have made their life out of creating illustrations for the game. Only through pure volunteer labor and relentless energy could this show stand on its own two legs for the first time, and come 6:00pm, the team had proven that the interest to see such a feature was very much alive in the player-base. The Grand Prix was nearly over, but Linnemann and his team still had a mountain of work ahead of them. Assembling an entire gallery’s worth of makeshift walls to hang very valuable paintings was only half the battle: tearing down, safely packing, and shipping still remained, and all had to be done in time to catch a flight the next morning.

Like a well-oiled assembly line, the entire room of volunteers worked in tandem to disassemble the space. We were all exhausted. We all wanted to be home. But more than that, we wanted to see the show succeed, from start to finish, to prove to the event organizers that it’s not about the cards.

It’s about the people.


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