Sometimes people ask me how I ended up doing what I do for a living. I tell them, only half jokingly, that as a kid I loved playing games, and that never changed. I started playing Magic when I was thirteen years old, in February of 1994. It is now April of 2014. I am thirty-three years old, and I have been playing Magic for twenty years. But Magic certainly wasn’t where I got my start.
I always loved games as a kid. My earliest memories of games were when I was in grade school in New Hampshire. I remember running around outside at recess with my friends. We were basically just pretend fighting – mimicing scenes and characters from cartoons and the like, but I was in the middle of the action directing the story for my friends, telling them what they saw and what was happening like some kind of proto-dungeon master.
I started playing video games with the original Nintendo. The first games we had were things like Ice Hockey, The Karate Kid, and Ninja Gaiden. Those games didn’t interest me very much, but I was absolutely enthralled by The Legend of Zelda. I spent hours of my young life seeking out every heart container to grow as powerful as I could, and felt truly clever when I learned where to find the power bracelet, what trees to burn to find secrets to everybody, or that Dodonga hates smoke. I never really cared as much for games that measured how fast I could push a button or how accurately I could move around the screen, but I loved games that tested what I could learn – what I could figure out.
I fell in love with Nobunaga’s Ambition and Romance of the Three Kingdoms – strategy games about conquering feudal Japan and China. In Romance of the Three Kingdoms, I quickly learned that Lu Bu was the most powerful general in the game, and had a low loyalty to his starting lord, so I began every game by offering him a large bribe to join my side. If my ploy failed, I’d just restart the game. My goal wasn’t just to win, but to win in dramatic fashion.
Perhaps the most unusual game that I became obsessed with was Baseball Stars. I wasn’t much of an athletic kid, nor did I care much for watching sports, so generally a baseball simulation game wasn’t something that would appeal to me. But Baseball Stars had a different element than just pitching and hitting and fielding. It had a career mode, in which you could manage a team through a season, hire and train new players, and try to make your team the best it could be.
In much the same way that I wanted to collect every heart container and item in Zelda, I wanted to make the best possible team in Baseball Stars. I realized that the “Star Players” you could hire all had high starting stats but low stat caps, so they were bad investments in the long term. I determined that I was best served by hiring all of the best rookies and using my money to train them to their max stats and fire all of my existing star players to make room for them.
I also realized that the money that my team earned for a game was based on the popularity score of the two teams involved, and that the money I earned didn’t change whether I played against the computer or against another player. The game had a mercy rule that automatically ended the game if one team was leading by a certain amount of runs at the end of an inning. So I just played my team repeatedly against the team with the highest popularity in the game – The Lovely Ladies – and struck out all of the opposing team’s batters, then walked all of my batters until I had enough runs to win by the mercy rule until I had enough money to hire and train the best possible team in the game.
I was nine years old. Not much has changed about the way I play games since then.
I was exposed to roleplaying games for the first time when I was in grade school. I was at a local store selling video games when I saw a book with a cool dark skinned elf with a pair of twin swords on the cover. It was Homeland, by RA Salvatore. I bought it, and devoured it immediately. I started reading fantasy novels as fast as I could buy them. I actually got in trouble in school multiple times for reading during class, as I tore through the Dark Elf Triology and the Crystal Shard Triology and more.
One day, I picked up some Dungeons and Dragons rulebooks that were shelved near the books I was reading. I didn’t have anyone to play with at the time, but I read those books, too, cover to cover, immersing myself in the rules and the stories and the worlds contained within.
Eventually, I started going to a hobby shop that ran a public AD&D campaign on Saturdays. It was called The Toy Soldier, and it was in West Newbury, MA and run by a nice guy named Mark. I don’t remember how we first found out about it, but eventually my brother and I started going every Saturday morning to play in one game, and then hanging around all day to play in another game later that night. We’d spend the afternoon playing random other games around the shop, from board games like Diplomacy to a card-based Battleship-type game called Salvo.
Our dad would drive us there in the morning and give us some money to get lunch at the market next door, but I usually spent it on a roll of cookie dough that I’d just eat raw. It’s really no wonder I struggled with my weight growing up.
I started playing Dungeons and Dragons with some of my friends from school – many of them the same friends with whom I had played my game of pretend years before – and now I was once again running the game and telling the story as the Dungeon Master.
It was at The Toy Soldier that we first learned about gaming conventions, which sounded like the coolest thing in the world. An entire weekend where no one does anything but play games? Where could we sign up? My brother and I managed to convince our mom to take us.
The first gaming convention I ever attended was called Total ConFusion. I went to play in AD&D events all weekend. One of my most distinct memories of that event was an “Arena” that my brother and I signed up for, in which each player had to make a character of a certain level and with a certain selection of magic items and then move a lead mini representing their character around a terrain-filled game board to fight other players to the death.
Drawing upon my Baseball Stars min-max training, I made a Halfling Warrior who specialized in thrown darts, and chose for my magic item Gauntlets of Ogre Strength. That meant that my character got the Halfling thrown weapon bonus, weapon specialization bonus, dexterity +hit bonus for missile weapons, and +damage from my strength bonus to something like six attacks per round. A finely tuned killing machine beyond anything else anyone else brought to the table. I don’t quite remember what their excuse was, but the people running the game ended up not letting me play the character I’d made (or somehow ruling that my entirely-legal set of bonuses didn’t work together), and I left the event frustrated that I wasn’t able to take advantage of the combination I had figured out.
It was at Total ConFusion that I first discovered Magic. It was my second or third year attending the convention that I was wandering down the hall and I saw some people sitting on the floor playing with some cool looking cards. I watched for a while and asked what the game was and how it worked. They explained that it was a game called Magic, and that each player brought their own deck and decided which of their cards they wanted to play in it.
Cool looking cards with fantasy creatures? And the whole point of the game was to figure out combinations to beat other people with? I could not have been more sold. I immediately went to the dealer hall to try to find somewhere to get some of these “Magic cards”. I was only able to find one booth that carried them, and they only had three packs left.
I bought them and ripped them open, looking at my glorious bounty and comparing it to the price guide the dealer had at his table with him. Three of my cards were rares, and according to the price guide were worth five dollars. I peered over them, curious. I could see how this Kormus Bell could be worth five dollars, because it turned all of my Swamps into creatures, and that was really cool. But this Bayou? That’s just like a Forest and a Swamp – what’s so great about that? And this Mox Jet? That’s just like a Swamp that can be Shattered – how is THAT worth five dollars?
I’ve come a long way since then, and so has Magic. But really, it all started with the Lovely Ladies.