A feature match being broadcast. Photo: Madelyn Boudreaux
Two hundred and sixty-four players on Saturday and 152 on Sunday vied for top honors and cash prizes at the Star City Games Open Series Magic: The Gathering tournament.
Flipping over little rectangles of cardboard may seem like the province of 90-pound weaklings and the nerdiest of the nerds, and there were plenty of those (myself included) at the Salt Palace this weekend. However, MTG players cover a lot of territory—from athletes who have suffered injuries to middle-aged moms who got into to the game while supporting their kids’ interest to professional players who travel from event to event and make significant money from the game and its related industries.
Celebrating its 20th birthday this month, MTG has gone through serious changes over the years, including rules changes so sweeping and contentious that, at one point, huge numbers of players quit. There has been a recent surge in interest, however, as new sets, rules and events have rekindled excitement for the game.
I got involved in February, after a chance comment to my boyfriend that it would be a fun thing for us to do together. “Cardboard crack” as many folks call the game, is just as addicting as the name. Don’t try it, not even once, unless you’re willing to have your living room covered in a layer of brightly colored cards, your bank account drained $4 at a time as you buy booster packs, and your brain addled with thoughts of mana, “the metagame” and killer card combinations. Still, as addictions go, I suppose more dangerous ones exist.
So when I heard Star City Games—an online retailer of the cards, but also a producer of a lot of content about the game, such as videos and articles detailing new strategies, decks and players—was holding one of their events in Salt Lake City, I jumped at a chance to work at it. (I am not nearly a good enough player to sign up and play on this level!) My job as a “coverage runner” was to help the live video team gather information such as deck lists and biographies. Each round—nine on Saturday and eight on Sunday, plus the quarter-, semi- and finals rounds—involved six “feature matches,” usually games using interesting decks or exceptionally good players, with one of these broadcasted live online, commentated by Matthias Hunt and Patrick Chapin. Some games moved so fast that it was necessary for me to help move new games into the broadcast area, while others took the full 50 minutes of allotted time, and I just watched.
The weekend also featured side events, including draft formats like Two-Headed Giant, in which teams of two build decks on the fly and then play together, and booster drafts, in which players draft cards from a pool and play six rounds for a small prize. Local MTG artist Steve Argyle attended, signing and modifying cards he designed, and selling play mats, posters and original art.
Saturday’s result was slightly surprising as the winner, Jacob Tobey of Denver, Colo., beat out several well-known players with his fast and aggressive red/green deck, after playing a little unevenly early in the day. Las Vegas pro gamer William “Huey” Jensen—a recent inductee to the MTG Hall of Fame—took the win on Sunday with a Jund Midrange (a slower but very powerful red/green/black) deck, after finishing seventh the day before. (Each day was a separate event, in terms of standings, so Saturday’s results did not affect Sunday’s.) Interestingly, each played the same deck each day, which shows that while deck strength and ability is important, there’s a good deal of variation in the play. A good player with a good deck can still finish low on the list, as Tobey did on Sunday. It is less likely, however, that a poor player with a weak deck could do well.
This weekend also saw a record broken as local 10-year-old Josh Morton, who has kicked my ass a few times, became the youngest player ever to finish in the top 16 at a major event. Josh was stoked to do so well, and his family was there to support him over the weekend. He even had a broadcast feature match against Alex Sittner (a top player in his own right, as well as the owner of the downtown game store Oasis Games), which he handled like a pro. Expect this kid to go places; he is planning to observe the World Championships in Nice next year, and he is hoping to qualify for higher-level events in the near future.