This time last year, reading through tournament reports about paper Vintage tournaments at GenCon, the goal of joining that fray seemed so far away. I only owned one piece of Power 9 in paper at the time, a Mox Jet I’d picked up from StarCity Games on a swing through Virginia a few years back. I had just recently Powered up online, and with no paper Vintage scene in my area it would have been easy to accept that my Vintage experience would never enter the world of paper cards. But seeing some of the hatebears decks have so much success at GenCon, particularly in the hands of Sean O’Brien, making a go of it with just a few Moxen seemed like a reasonable proposition.
I managed to pick up a Ruby and Pearl last fall before the prices spiked. The notion of obtaining any others might easily have died when Power 9 exploded in price after 2014’s Eternal Weekend. Fortunately, I stumbled into a new job opportunity which made it possible to acquire a few more pieces: a Mox Emerald hastily bought during the price panic, and an Ancestral Recall I repatriated from Europe. Thanks Greece, please keep rejecting austerity measures for another few years so the Euro tanks and we can buy all our Power 9 back!
So now I was ready to head to Indianapolis for what a flashing marquee promised would be the best four days of gaming I would ever have. (I for one always assume signs are telling me the truth until I catch one lying. You know, trust but verify.)
The convention center is enormous, and there were gigantic halls devoted to several types of games. There was an entire area set aside just for players of Settlers of Catan, a popular resource-trading board game in which you and another player unfairly team up to make lopsided deals while colluding to stop a third player from building any roads, harvesting any grain or having fun of any kind. You win when the third player ends your friendship.
If you want to do nothing but play Magic for four days straight, you’re probably missing the point of GenCon, but you can absolutely do that. There is an enormous play area, operated this year by Pastimes Games out of the Chicagoland area, with large tournaments held each day in Standard, Modern, Legacy and Vintage. There are also win-a-box 8-man tournaments held on demand, which is similar to the experience at SCG Opens and Grands Prix. This year they featured a “prize wall”, with each event awarding prize tickets you could spend on booster boxes or singles or playmats or whatever you like. If you have fond childhood memories of spending $20 playing skeeball on vacation in Door County Wisconsin for the chance to win oversized novelty combs and poorly-stitched stuffed animals, this system is right up your alley.
For some reason, perhaps a desire to resemble a 19th century Yukon logging village, you are required to pay the tournament entry fees using a sort of scrip currency known as “generic tickets”. Generic tickets are purchased for $2 each, and are necessary to enter any of the MTG events, unless you pre-registered online and therefore had a “specific event ticket”. Blessedly, there was a table set up near the MTG area which would convert your US dollars into Itchy and Scratchy Funland Bucks, and if you had any unused tickets at the end of the weekend you can and should re-exchange them for cash – unless of course you are from Argentina, in which case it’s safer to just keep all your money invested in GenCon tickets rather than convert them back to useless pesos.
…But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, because all of this assumes that you were able to make it to the convention center itself, which is no easy feat. We arrived by noon on Thursday and there was already no parking within a mile of the site to be found. There was a remote lot south of the football stadium with a shuttle, and we paid $15 to park there for the day. I recommend it, but bear in mind that: A) you will have to walk back there at midnight when you’re done playing because there’s no return shuttle, and B) you should buy the full weekend pass if they offer one. Our parking attendant didn’t even mention that there was a full weekend pass, so when I returned to park there on Friday I found myself paying $30 for that day alone. Why? Apparently demand for parking was up that day due to a One Direction concert at the stadium. Yes, the brilliant event planners of Indianapolis decided that with 60,000 nerds in town for an annual convention, the only thing missing was to have tens of thousands of teenage girls descend upon the same geographical area on the second-busiest day of the convention.
Well perhaps you would like to make it easier and get a hotel downtown within walking distance of the site. Good luck. GenCon actually buys and reserves all the hotel rooms within walking distance, and if you want one you are forced to register with GenCon’s website in January (a full 7 months ahead of the event) and wait in an online queue to purchase rooms from GenCon’s allotment. If you manage to hit F5 at precisely the correct moment, probably because you spent most of your summers in high school mastering single-frame link combos in Street Fighter Third Strike EX Alpha Championship Edition Remastered: The Revenge of Chun Li’s Thighs, then you might have the privilege of getting a hotel room downtown… or you might get stuck 10 miles offsite by the airport. All of the convention-affiliated hotels will offer you a shuttle service, but the shuttle service costs money, and it is actually cheaper to use Uber to get downtown, so that’s not much of a feature.
Assuming you make it to GenCon, you’ll probably want to explore the vendor tables. Most of the major retailers were there, and there were several with Power for sale. My first pickup of the day was a Beta Birds of Paradise to complete my playset. Like the Library of Alexandria I bought earlier this year, it was bafflingly signed in ordinary ink pen by Mark Poole, but the condition and price were too good to pass up.
As it happens, Mark Poole was at GenCon – he has attended every year since 1991. I sought him out in the artists’ area, and he was nice enough to sign the rest of my set in silver marker to match one I had purchased that way.
I asked about the ink pen signature, and finally got the scoop on this. He told me that during the first couple of years, if he was asked to sign a card, he used pen because that’s how he would have signed any of his other artwork. The preference for markers had not yet been established at that point. During the game’s first few months in 1993, Mark signed cards the same way his signature appears in the art, with simply the last name “Poole”. He dated the ink pen signature you see on the rightmost card above, which uses his full name, to 1994. Aesthetically I prefer the silver marker, but now that I know the ink pen signature is 21 years old, I have a bit more reverence for the history of it and for Mark’s early involvement with the community. Mark Poole’s is one of the most common signatures, and indeed I would not be surprised if as much as a quarter of the rarest cards containing his art were signed, but that simply speaks to how accessible he has been to the players and collectors through the years. It was truly an honor to meet one of the original MTG artists and to own this sweet set of Birds to play in all of the Tier 3 Modern decks I build.
Wandering back to the vendor tables, I decided it was time to unload some of the Modern stuff I wasn’t playing and pick up a new piece of Power! This required shopping around a bit for the best buylist prices and for the best prices on Power 9. Pro tip for vendors selling Power 9: your consumers know a lot about high-end cards, so you should know your inventory very well. I found a reasonably priced Time Walk, but upon examining it, I found it had been inked on the backside to hide border-whitening. I inquired of the vendor, and he seemed surprised to learn this. An inked card absolutely MUST be disclosed as inked, any eBay seller would certainly disclose it, and I had zero confidence in this guy’s inventory as a result. I eventually found a seller that had a nice Time Walk with an SP front and MP back, and a good buylist price on Snapcaster Mages, and picked up this baby:
I’m now 67% Powered!
With a few hours left to go before Vintage started, I did a pickup game of Dungeons & Dragons. This convention was founded by Gary Gygax, the originator of D&D, as a venue for his pre-D&D war games. The owners of D&D – TSR, and later Wizards of the Coast – owned the convention for many years. So as you would imagine, there is a huge area set aside for D&D play, and they have premade character sheets available to make it easy for you to jump into some action. Games run every hour on the top of the hour. If you want to do this, I would recommend reserving and paying for your session in advance, because getting a pickup game requires getting in line about 30 minutes ahead of time. I hadn’t played in 20 years, but the new 5th edition rules are extremely easy, and it was great fun, though a bit noisy in the convention hall to hear the DM very well.
Finally, it was time for Vintage! Being a sanctioned event, I was expecting a fair number of dredge decks on account of prices, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. I spent the whole night staring across the table at black-bordered Moxes. Twice I had an opponent cast or reveal a white-bordered Hurkyl’s Recall and had to ask if it was a Summer/Edgar card, given how pimped out the rest of their decks were. But no, apparently Beta Moxen are run of the mill at GenCon but nobody can be troubled to upgrade their 5th edition Hurkyl’s to an Antiquities copy.
As mentioned, I was on my 5-Color Human Hatebears list, which I’ve played previously in this article series. Not owning a paper Black Lotus, I have been running Mana Crypt in its place. Here’s the list I took to battle:
5-Color Humans by RexDart
The last time I’d played this list was at a series of proxy events in St. Louis back in March, and I had not adjusted the list for the presence of some of the newly-emerged decks over the summer. Unfortunately for me, I met one of those decks in Round 1. The European deck known as “The Answer” is a UR mana denial deck using Magus of the Moon and Chalice of the Void to lock down opponents. My deck with zero basic lands or fetches had very little hope of ever beating a resolved Magus, as I had only one creature removal spell in the maindeck that could kill it. In Game 1, I had an early Deathrite Shaman but only two lands in the yard to feed off when he landed Magus and a Chalice set to zero to stop my Moxen. I had a Krosan Grip in hand to take out the Chalice, but couldn’t deal with the Magus or rip any more fuel before he took down the DRS and closed out the Game 2 points of life at a time. Thanks to my six manadorks, I was able to cast my spells while on the play in Game 2, but Game 3 was a reprise of Game 1. My opponent was running Fire // Ice to take out the manadorks I did resolve, and crushed me handily with that spell in Games 1 and 3 to take the match.
Round 2 I was paired against an old school “trick deck”, using Underworld Dreams and Black Vise alongside Howling Mine and a fistful of “draw 7” spells. This match was an absolute blast for a fan of Old School 93/94 MTG like myself, and the deck was surprisingly powerful against mine. Giving me all those cards was likely to set up a game-ending combo the next turn if I were any other sort of deck in Vintage, but instead I was a hatebear deck up against something I wasn’t designed to hate. I took this down 2-1, but it was shockingly close.
I defeated BUG Delver in Round 3. I floundered on mana in Game 1, only casting a couple of Containment Priests, causing my opponent to misread me as a Death and Taxes deck. Game 2 started with a DRS Turn 1 into an Ancestral Recall and Dark Confidant on Turn 2, causing my opponent to look very surprised at the shift in my deck’s appearance. I ground him out in Games 2 and 3 for the win, and induced a “what the heck does that do?” moment when casting a foil German Falkenrath Aristocrat. “Cavern naming Vampire” likely isn’t a phrase uttered too often in Vintage. After the match, I was chatting with my opponent and he mentioned that he was such a huge fan of BUG Delver that he had purchased the original artwork for Trygon Predator. Original MTG art has been exploding in price, and that is a sweet piece to own.
Round 4 I was paired against Oath of Druids. Maindeck Containment Priests stunned my opponent in Game 1, and he couldn’t find an answer before the beatdown finished him off. In Game 2 he was able to kill a Priest and get an Oath off while at 7 life. Expecting a Griselbrand I could have worked around, I instead saw him flip Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite. He said it was in there for the Mentor decks, and it’s obviously good against dredge, but it was absolutely bonkers against me. It left me no outs except Path to Exile, which I couldn’t find in time. I was able to win the match with a Priest and a Grafdigger’s Cage in Game 3.
I was now at 3-1, needing to go 4-1 for any prize support. In the final round I was paired against the Kuldotha Forgemaster variant of Shop. This was a fun match, despite the best attempt of Shops to be bitterly un-fun to play against. For the first time in any paper match against Shops, I was able to untap with a Mayor of Avabruck in play, and yeah that’s pretty sweet. In the end, this match literally came down to a coin flip. In Game 3, with Mana Crypts on both sides of the table, I had my opponent at 3 and I was at 2. He was finally able to stick a Metalworker the previous turn, but was in danger of dying to his Crypt. He won his flip, dumped a bunch of stuff on the table, but no Lightning Greaves, so I still had a shot. On my turn, I lost my flip and lost the game. Many matches of MTG can be said to be metaphorical “coin flips”, but it is infuriating to lose a game to an actual coin flip, especially when that means you walk away with absolutely nothing instead of about $135 worth of prize tickets.
Friday morning there was an early Vintage event at 10:30, but I had some errands to deal with and couldn’t attend it. I attempted to make it to a 2pm Modern event, but was stymied when a flaming car on the interstate shut down traffic for an hour. Yes, a flaming car. After finally getting downtown and paying for the aforementioned $30 in parking (really, $30 parking to see One Direction without Zayn Malik?) I was 5 minutes too late to register for the event. At this point I was pissed off, the venue was crowded, the parking was ridiculous, I couldn’t play what I wanted to play, and I was considering the whole trip a bad idea. But I sucked it up and went back, after cooling my head, and played a Standard win-a-box.
If you’re just there to get value, these are the events to play. You win two matches, you chop the finals and can either literally split a box with your opponent or just save up prize tickets and walk off with a case or two at the end of the weekend. I was sporting a fun homebrew Bant Collected Company deck with a lot of morphs and some instants to play on my opponent’s turn to mix things up, so I could represent either a CoCo or an Ojutai’s Command or any other number of tricks. I played both rounds against Mono-Black Warriors, winning both despite struggling mightily with combat math, proving I’ve been playing eternal formats too long and not enough limited. Hell, it’s not like I play Belcher, I play creature decks in eternal formats, and I still couldn’t figure out whether I’d be dead to a topdecked Mogis’s Marauder or not without spending three minutes in the tank. So I chopped the finals, got half a box with nothing noteworthy in it, but I felt reinvigorated by the win and instantly my mood improved, lasting the rest of the weekend.
My brother from Maryland was coming into town after dinner, so I figured I’d kill some time out at the beer tent. Yes, there’s a beer tent! I had expected GenCon to offer nothing but overpriced convention hall food, but instead there were a dozen food trucks right across from the hall, along with a tent operated by Sun King Brewing Company, a local Indianapolis brewery.
It’s noteworthy how much this town embraces the invasion of nerds that occurs once per year, in that everything downtown seemed geared to accommodate us and our dweeby tastes. The brewery had produced a can labeled the “official beer of GenCon” and given it a bad Star Trek pun for a name. There was live music set to begin at 6pm, and waiting for the band to come on, here’s the playlist they had over the PA system: B-52’s “Girls”, Devo’s “Satisfaction”, Weird Al’s “Amish Paradise”, catering respectively to the Hipster Nerd, Eccentric Nerd, and Excessively Pasty Nerd.
After grabbing a few brews, I met up with my brother and headed to a nearby bar a block away where they were doing Star Wars trivia. Alas, despite my love of Star Wars, I was not enough of a dork to have read all the books, which were the source of several tough questions.
By Saturday, I had completely given up on any attempt to play Magic, and my convention experience immediately improved. If you wander the game floor, you get a chance to demo a lot of new games. The “big thing” for card game players this year was a new edition of Game of Thrones, which was only available for sale if you lined up super early and were willing to trample over women, children and puppies to reach the Fantasy Flight Games booth ahead of everybody else as soon as the exhibit hall opened. I was able to demo the game, it is quite fun and MTG players should find the game rules easy to pick up. If you’re a fan of the books or show, I recommend trying it out.
There are also some nerd-interest-related vendors, and the Doctor Who booth had a walking, talking, exterminating-your-planet Dalek there. It was a real hit with the kids, but one has to wonder whether it’s dangerous to let kids think that Daleks are huggable and cute. Sure, that ridiculous toilet plunger arm looks harmless, but the show has a much bigger budget now than it did in the 1960’s, in 2015 that thing might shoot blue lasers that rip your spleen from your body for all I know. Of course, as with assault weapons, it may be best to raise your kids around Daleks so they aren’t scared of them when they grow up and inevitably have to use them to attack people.
Saturday afternoon, I had the chance to do a sealed deck for the old Star Wars CCG. The fact that sealed product still exists for this game is somewhat amazing, having been out of print for over a decade, but several of the boosters we used were from sets that were overprinted to near Fallen Empires levels.
I was able to build a synergistic deck of sorts, which was amazing considering the boosters were drawn from three completely different blocks, but my Round 3 opponent had a bomb-laden pool with a foil Death Star, a foil Vader, and 5 star destroyers.
Sunday morning, after a fun pickup D&D game with my brother, I headed back over to the exhibit area and got to meet MTG artist Wayne Reynolds. As a big fan of Legacy Zoo, I was happy to get my Nacatls signed, along with the FTV: Legends version of Rafiq. I asked Wayne if they give artists any different instruction when drawing cards that are only going to exist in foil, but he said that they don’t give any guidance on that and the entire foiling process occurs after the art is already handed off.
I think what I’ll take away from GenCon is the experience of being surrounded by people with nerdy interests in a context where you don’t have to hide that. Other than Vin Diesel, how many successful people do you know who play Dungeons & Dragons? Probably a lot, actually, but they sure as hell don’t say so out loud. I wouldn’t ever talk to a person on the street about Magic or Doctor Who or the minutiae of Star Wars, and if somebody started talking to me about those things I’d be embarrassed to have that conversation in front of “normals”. One of my other lawyer pals plays MTG and if we talk cards at the courthouse I’m always a bit afraid of what people might think who are overhearing us. At GenCon, you can let loose and be as geeky as you want, because everybody there was at least a little bit geeky. Even the bathroom graffiti was geeky:
Purely as an MTG event, I don’t think GenCon would be worth the hassle. You can find a similar experience at any Grand Prix or at an SCG Open, and with much cheaper parking and lodging. But you’d be doing it wrong. Put the cards away for at least one day, stop looking at your watch, and start looking at the people around you. Every year, tens of thousands of people brave all these ridiculous hassles to get together and revel in each other’s weirdness, like some super-tame Burning Man where all the drugs were replaced by D20s. Where else could you walk into an upscale diner wearing a Jek Porkins novelty t-shirt and not feel out of place? Where else do you stroll by a string trio consisting of a Klingon playing mandolin, a guy in a full Chewbacca suit, and a woman dressed as Han Solo?
So God bless you, GenCon. You’re a crowded, overpriced mess with no parking and a byzantine system of procuring accommodations and event entries. But anything that gets tens of thousands of people to overlook all of that and come back for more year after year must have something truly special going on.