Rereading Centurion, Issue #4: 1995 Swedish Nationals

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This cover image, like most used by Centurion, is taken from Mutant Chronicles/Doomtrooper. Probably because of the editor’s connections to Target Games. The magazine was always more about Magic than any other game.

Oh, we should have been there. We should all have been there, at the 1995 Swedish Nationals, slinging dual lands and Demonic Tutors in Type 2 for the first and only time. That tournament is the subject of a couple of long articles in Centurion issue #4, the first Magic one, written by the recent staff member and eventual champion Dan Hörning. The format was Revised, Fourth Edition, The Dark and Fallen Empires, with a Type 1-ish restricted list, including Channel, Mind Twist, Balance, and Fork, but not Strip Mine. Hörning played the following deck:

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Interesting things of note:

  •  It plays Orgg. Orgg is awesome.
  •  It runs a second copy of Jayemdae Tome in the sideboard “to combat the discard decks”. (Jayemdae Tome was popular at the tournament. “Some even ran three!”)
  •  “Sometimes, my deck feels like a zoo”, writes Hörning, referring to his apes and bears. What we call Lestree Zoo appears to be referred to in Sweden as Serendib decks at this time.

An aggressive R/G deck with a light black splash, built around Channel/Fireball and Blood Moon, to punish all the greedy decks. And boy, were there greed. Think about the mana bases possible in the format. The only fixing available are the original dual lands, Birds of Paradise, and Land Tax. Nothing else is close to playable. There’s also unrestricted Strip Mine and Mishra’s Factory. Strip Mine is not mentioned even once in the article, though, except that the runner-up in the finals, Leon Lindbäck of PT1 fame, played one copy. This is his deck:

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Yeah, zero basic lands turned out not to be very good against Blood Moon in the finals. I’m no stranger to playing one color too many, but splashing green for Regrowth and Sylvan Library in a format like this is too close to madness even for my taste. Something UW with a small black splash for tutor and Mind Twist seems feasible, though. Maybe with 29 mana sources, 2 Strip Mines, Sol Ring, a couple of Fellwar Stones, and 0 Mishras, a mana base could offer 14 blue, 14 white and 8 black while sporting 6 of each basic. That is bad, but not horrible. And the power is there: card drawing, restricted cards, the cheap answers we all love.

But what else is there? My first instinct, in a format with horrible manafixing and unrestricted Strip Mine and Black Vise, is to play some mono-colored aggro deck. The cards are just so bad, however. Going mono-red, you have to play goblins, and beyond Lightning Bolt and Goblin Grenade, you’d have to go to Fireball for burn. What’s worse, the deck can never handle a Circle of Protection outside of Disk, a card you wouldn’t even want. Mono-blue has Counterspell, Control Magic, Serendib Efreet and Mana Vaults to accelerate out Air Elementals and Mahamoti Djinns, but the rest of the creatures all suck and there’s no cheap removal, nor enough good card draw and counterspells to play draw-go reliably. Mono-green has Grizzly Bear leading their creature suite, as Hörning’s deck shows. Mono-black has Hymn, Knights and Erg Raiders and Hypnotics, Dark Ritual, Sengir and Disks, but no Juzam, no Su-Chi, no Sinkhole or Necro. The power just isn’t there, you just have a bunch of small-to-mid sized creatures backed up by Hymns. Not the worst deck by any means, probably better than most multi-colored decks with their faulty mana bases, but not where you want to be. White Weenie is probably the most promising. You have synergy between Strip Mine, Black Vise, Armageddon and an aggressive plan, you have good removal and okay creatures between Savannah Lions, Icatian Javelineers, Knights and Serras. You’d lose to Wrath of God but that’s WW life.

Maybe GW is the best. All the good removal, Birds of Paradise, Land Tax, Sylvan; you can’t kickstart the Land Tax, but running both Strip Mine and Armageddon should help. There’s no Erhnam, but there’s Serra, as well as splashing black for a couple of Derelors in addition to Demonic and Mind Twist. That actually doesn’t sound halfway bad.

Anyway. The tournament seemed to be dominated by BW control decks with Hymns, Serras, Sengirs and removal; multi-colored aggro decks, presumably with Serendibs, Sedge Trolls, Kird Apes and the like; and some white weenie decks. Including one of the semifinalists, as well as one player in the stage of 16, “Olle Rydå, a small kid I remembered from [Gothenburg game convention] GothCon”. Some things never change.

But some things do: the tournament was run as 35 groups of 4, where every winner and the 13 best runner-ups advanced to a second group stage of 12 groups. After that it was, for some reason, cut to top 16. Pre-sideboarding (boarding for game 1) might have been allowed, or just practiced anyway.

Interesting cards seen throughout the tournament: Twiddle, Divine Transformation, Disintegrate, something white with banding (Benalish Hero?), Elvish Riders.

Also, there is a detailed play-by-play of the finals, including one game where a turn-2 Blood Moon forces a concession. Probably decipherable even for those who don’t know Swedish:

But what more is covered in this issue? An article covering every deck archetype, featuring goblin decks with Goblin Shrines and Goblin Caves (“the non-blast one”, meaning not using Chain Lightnings and more burn), classic Stasis decks with Time Elementals or Obelisks of Undoing, but otherwise mostly sane concepts. A guide to building R/G aggro with 59 commons and an uncommon (guess which). A look at the fresh Ice Age set, highlighting Orcish Lumberjack, pain lands, and cantrips (but not Brainstorm), while not being as high on Jester’s Cap than everybody else. Rules for multiplayer games and tournament play. A list of useful websites (this is 1995, remember), including newsgroups and the official Magic site at http://www.itis.com/deckmaster/magic. And, finally, a price guide. Preceded by a still very useful guide of print runs from the available sets (Alpha through The Dark, at which point print run numbers cease to be public, as far as I know). Oh, but the prices. The prices. (Quoted numbers are in SEK, Swedish kronor, which currently are about 9 to the dollar, 10 to the euro; the exact numbers in 1995 I don’t know). Jester’s Cap at 150, which isn’t that surprising for the chase card of a new set, but also Pentagram of the Ages at 100. Revised Jandor’s Ring at 30-70. Fourth Edition Blue Mana Battery at 40-70. Dual lands at 80-150, Bazaar at 200-270, Tabernacle at 270-350. The power wasn’t insanely cheap, comparatively, at 1500-3000 for the Lotus and 1000-1500 for the moxes. Guardian Beast at the same price as Juzam, 650-900. In general, bad cards are expensive, good cards are cheap.

Man, those were the days.

We should have been there.

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Rereading Centurion: Introduction, and issue #3

So there I was, wide-eyed and stressed out, browsing through the shelves of non-plastic-wrapped role-playing games at the Tradition store, deep down in the Nordstan mall in Gothenburg, Sweden. Discovering games I’d never heared of, weird and strangely beautiful games, like Shadowrun with its glossy pages sporting full-color illustrations of street samurais and elvish cyberpunk wizards. It was late October or early November. The year was 1994.

Whenever possible, I tried to travel to Stockholm or Gothenburg from my small home town, usually together with my mom, to buy games, books and other things I was interested in. This time around, however, I had a mission: I was to bring home a couple of starter decks for this strange new game, called Magic, for me and my friend. There were no single cards on sale yet, as I recall, just some packs and decks at a stand by the counter. (I’m probably just mistaken.) A few days later we were trying to figure out the Revised rule book, having a hard time understanding how long the Frozen Shade bonus lasted, or what Circle of Protection: Black or Dark Ritual really did. It was a beginning, but we did not know that.

But why? Why was I out to get the Magic cards in that faraway fall? It was all because of an article in the Swedish gaming magazine Centurion. The brainchild of gaming profile Olle Sahlin, once heavily involved in the influential Sinkadus magazine from the rpg producer Äventyrsspel/Target Games (publishing games such as Mutant, Drakar och Demoner, Mutant Chronicles, and Kult), it wasn’t really a fanzine, more a small-scale commercial magazine, with black-and-white interior, professional-looking photographs on the cover, containing articles on subjects like Ars Magica, live role-playing, Space Hulk, Kult, and general storytelling. And, in issue #3, in August 1994, an one-page article on this new game called Magic: the Gathering.

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Cover of issue #3

Beginning with issue #4, and continuing until the last issue, #13, Centurion was solely about Magic. Starting today, I’m rereading those issues and writing about it. We will revisit the first ever Swedish Nationals, where Blood Moon defeats a The Deck list with zero basic lands; we will watch Olle Råde taking down Pro Tour Columbus with Giant Trap Door Spiders; we will ponder set reviews of Homelands and Ice Age; we will delve into the earliest history of Stockholm Magic; and we will marvel at the prices of Black Lotus and Jester’s Cap in 1995. I’m not committing to any particular posting schedule, but it will be a regular feature of the blog from now on.

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But the start was a single one-page article, written by someone called Fredrik Säterby. Titled just “Magic The Gathering”, it explains the game in terms of a “playable card collection”, used for several different things: trading and collecting the cards, looking at the pictures as art, playing with them and “experiencing interesting scenarios”, or just sitting quietly, building decks. There are several kinds of cards, you build decks with no more than 4 copies of each card and at least 40 cards, a game usually takes between 10 and 20 turns. You want to have not too few and not too many lands in your deck. And there are five colors of mana, representing “the battle between good and evil, life and death, and the four elements”. This game surfaced in Sweden only half a year ago, in late 1993, but now it’s spreading like wildfire in certain circles, the article concludes, especially at gaming conventions. It’s quick, portable, compact and financially interesting.

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The caption says “playing Magic”, but they’re obviously building a deck or sorting through cards. The editor probably wasn’t as versed in Magic then as he would later become.

Why did this somewhat bland description of the game capture me so, making me talk some of my rpg buddies into trying the game out, even buying their own cards unseen? I honestly have no idea. It had something to do with the examples given, how lightning bolts were cast on unicorns which suddenly grew to giant porportions and survived, or the possiblities of using weird magic spells (one of the examples given is dealing damage to every creature by the plague – as an example of a sorcery). But I cannot really recall the state of mind of that fourteen-year-old I once was. Needless to say, I got hooked. All because of Centurion (although, gamer as I was, I probably would have discovered the game sooner or later, anyway). There I was. And here I am.

Why you should read Titus Chalk’s Generation Decks

There has never been an official history of Magic. Back in the days, the early days of tournament Magic was chronicled at The Dojo. Formats, like Legacy or Vintage, have had their respective histories written in article series in places like Starcitygames or The Mana Drain. Mark Rosewater has written countless articles about the history of the game’s design back on the mothership, and almost every detail of the Pro Tour has been debated in one way or another. But nobody, as far as I know, has ever tried to tackle the whole history of the game at once. That is, until now.

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Titus Chalk, Generation Decks. Solaris, 2017, 276 pp, $17

Titus Chalk’s Generation Decks, released earlier this year, is an unofficial history of the game, but, being a journalist, Chalk goes to the original sources, digs up truths and speaks to very many people who were there. Loosely chronological and thematic, the book start with the meeting between Richard Garfield and Peter Adkison in 1991 that kicked it all into motion, covering the pre-Alpha playtest phase, the 1993 GenCon release, the early success and incredible growth of Wizards of the Coast as a company, the introduction of the Pro Tour and its first heroes and villains, the Schools of Magic and The Dojo, the rise of Jon Finkel and Kai Budde, the exodus of many pro players towards a career in professional poker, the sale of WotC to Hasbro, the secondary market for cards, the role of Magic Online, and the lack of women in the game. Sprinkled in, there are autobiographical parts, describing what the game means to the author, illustrating how it can make you meet new friends and give you a stable point in life.

If you’re interested in old school Magic, in Magic in general, or just in gaming history, you need to read this book. I’m fairly well versed in the game’s history, having played since late 1994, read The Duelist since 1995 and compulsively consumed every internet article from The Dojo to current-era Starcitygames, and there were still lots and lots of things in the book which were new to me. Like the part about the original artists’ contracts, or the actual early history of The Deck (my favorite part of the book, to be sure). If anything, my only negative note is that the current Pro Tour part ends in 2013. It makes an otherwise timeless book feel a bit dated right off the shelves, but in a few years’ time, it won’t matter. And this is a book for the ages. The prose style is clear, fluent and at times witty. Chalk’s passion for the game is eminently evident, making the British-born, currently Berlin-based author fly around the globe, attending tournaments, talking to different people, and tracking down even more by phone and Skype. It is a joy to read, and it should stand on every serious Magic player’s shelf.