Chapter 8-We Are One


We Are One  

THE LESTREE FAMILY were a bright bunch. Younger brother Bertrand was studying business, while his older sibling Laurent taught computer sciences at the Université Pierre et Marie Curie in Paris’ fifth arrondissement. Located on the Jussieu Campus, it was at the forefront of scientific and medical research in France. It was also just a stone’s throw away from the cornerstone of the capital’s gaming scene, a shop called L’Oeuf Cube – ‘The Square Egg’. On benches outside the store, traders with bulging suitcases packed with Magic cards would haggle with excited players from all corners of the Hexagon. On my only trip there, as a provincial adolescent, I traded for a set of Unlimited Sinkholes – a major victory at the time. On my way back to meet my parents, I was mugged by two tracksuited, hash-smoking ne’er-do-wells in the Jardin des Halles. They took my money. They took my dignity. But thankfully not my Magic cards…  It was Laurent Lestrée who discovered Magic first. The computing teacher duelled daily with his students, before introducing the game to his brother in late 1993. It proved the perfect distraction from the pair’s academic concerns. Soon they were honing their skills against each other every evening, with the intensity only sibling rivalry can produce. Bertrand mastered the game and became a fixture at L’Oeuf Cube. There, he discovered the burgeoning French tournament scene. And, as his Magic chops improved, he started to win. And win. And win.  

By the summer of 1994, Betrand had wrapped up his studies. A sunny stretch of languid Parisian days lay ahead of him before his mandatory civic service began in the autumn. He was playing Magic religiously: 10, maybe 12 hours a day. Gradually, he was refining his deck and developing an aggressive strategy, featuring small, cheap-to-cast creatures to overwhelm his opponents before their defences were set. It was a plan that led Lestrée to triumph in his biggest tournament to date – the first-ever French national championship. It came with a spectacular prize: tickets and accommodation for Gencon’94, the pinnacle of which would be the first Magic world championship.  

On the other side of the Atlantic, meanwhile, Zak Dolan was also perfecting his skills. The towering, goateed mid-westerner had discovered Magic at roughly the same time as Lestrée, in December 1993, in Eclipse Books and Comics, in Rolla, Missouri. There, a friend had convinced Dolan to part with much of his slim student budget for cards. After tearing open his first purchase of eight Boosters and pulling a mean-looking Force of Nature, an 8/8 green creature with the trample ability, Dolan was hooked. He began playing large free-for-all games with his fraternity brothers at the University of Missouri-Rolla, while trading feverishly to complete his collection of cards. By the beginning of 1994, he had built a black-green deck that was beating up on local players. By the summer, he cut the black and added blue and white to the deck instead, in preparation for what he hoped would be the highlight of his year: a trip to Milwaukee to play in the first Magic world championship at Gencon.  

Wizards’ presence at that convention blew their previous year’s showing out of the water. They had gone, in the space of 12 months, from having the second-smallest booth size available to the very biggest. To boot, they were the show’s most popular stand by miles. Fans swamped the stall – to buy packs, to meet the creators and get cards signed by a number of the artists in attendance. It was one hell of a first birthday party. Mark Rosewater, a hopeful young Magic player and budding scriptwriter, turned up to pitch articles to the editor of Wizards’ in-house magazine The Duelist. What he saw blew his mind: Gencon had. been overrun by Magic players, busting out of their local scenes and congregating en masse for the very first time. Particularly for those without internet access (in 1994, a significant proportion), it was like some thrilling matriculation into a wider, geekier world, where all their pent-up excitement about the game could explode for four heady days of Magic action. Although this is only speculation, high-fives were probably traded.  

 “The joke of the convention was that if there was any horizontal space, Magic players were playing on it,” says Rosewater, who is today the game’s head designer. “As you walked through the convention halls, you could see Magic players camped out playing all over the floor. It was a sight to see.” For Lestrée and the French players who had made the trip with him, it was an awe-inspiring spectacle. In between rounds of the monolithic inaugural world championship — at 500-plus players, the biggest tournament then held – they seized the chance to trade for the rare and sought-after cards showing up in abundance in people’s trade folders. Juzam. Djinns, Serendib Efreets, Cities of Brass – the hottest cards from Arabian Nights – switched hands, as did a Mox or two. And all the while, Lestrée could scope out what decks other players had brought to battle with. None of them were as focused as his and, as the tournament (featuring multiple direct-elimination flights of 64 players per day) rolled on, his confidence grew.  

Dolan, meanwhile, not someone low on confidence, was steamrollering his segment of the tournament. Having overcome an expensive mechanical blow-out on his 500-mile road-trip from Missouri, he was not about to bow out easily. His deck was idiosyncratic to say the least, featuring one- and two-ofs of cards, apparently with little over-arching strategy. It was, though, in the hands of its creator, not to be taken lightly. Ultimately, it would carry the bullish, bandana-wearing Dolan all the way to the finals.  

Lestrée, too, was unstoppable. Playing a deck built around the cheap-to-cast but hard-hitting creatures in red, green and blue, red’s direct-damage spells and the best ‘broken’ (Magic slang for overly powerful) cards in black, he had an extremely consistent, fast deck. Where Dolan played individual copies of cards with narrow applications, Lestrée packed his deck with four-ofs – the maximum permissible number of a card in a deck, apart from basic lands — to give himself the best chance of always drawing the cards he needed. For the time, it was very solid deck construction and would crash up against Dolan’s approach in a mouth- watering final. Says Rosewater, who along with Chris Page would transcribe the final for The Duelist, “The deck was very fast and very consistent. And Bertrand clearly was one of the best (arguably the best) in the world.”  

Playing a best-out-of-three match, Lestrée quickly imposed himself. In game one, his deck worked like a dream, pumping out a stream of fast creatures that rushed the helpless Dolan. Dolan was able to slow the onslaught with the Legends enchantment Kismet, which forced Lestrée’s cards into play already tapped and thus unusable for a turn, but it was not enough. The Frenchman was able to burn his opponent to death with the combination of cards that had sparked such frenzied debate on Usenet a year previously; Channel, plus Fireball. The former is a green sorcery spell that lets its caster trade in life points for mana. The latter is a red sorcery that does as much damage to an opponent as its caster spends in mana. The pair usually suffices to inflict a fiery death on an unwitting opponent.  

Dolan shrugged his sizeable shoulders and carried on unperturbed. He trusted his deck, which he had tuned with members of the Pi Kappa Phi fraternity during a stint in Ann Arbor, Michigan, studying Japanese earlier in the summer. Built for the long haul, it contained plenty of cards to keep Dolan alive until he locked up the game with one of his favourite cards, Stasis, a blue enchantment which forces players to skip their untap step. Ivory Tower, an artifact from Antiquities, would gain Dolan life to take the game long and Library of Alexandria would help him draw extra cards. In game two, Dolan was able to get his Library online and overpower Lestrée. In the deciding game, Dolan got both Library and Ivory Tower out, and was able to land a Stasis. Having neglected to pack a Strip Mine or two – the best answer to Library of Alexandria at the time — Lestrée could do little to sever Dolan’s lifeline. Despite his blistering start to the final, the maverick Frenchman was eventually forced to concede in the 20th turn of game three. Rolla beat Paris and Magic had its first-ever world champion. It was not simply a moment for the annals – but amoment that created the annals.  

Magic suddenly had a history. In 12 exhilarating months, Wizards had gone from basement dwellers to world-beaters (they even had a real office now). A legion of players had fallen in love with a revolutionary game. And the world championships had conferred glory on a hastily assembled but tightly knit community. As Mark Rosewater would later write, The first Worlds had a lot of strikes against it, but it still stands out in my head as one of the golden moments in Magichistory. It was raw and unorganised but in many ways it was the beginning of a very important facet of the game. Everyone could sense the potential that Magichad for tournaments, but the first World Championships brought it all to an emotional boil […] Players really cared. Everyone seemed to get that this was the beginning of the road. Clearly, celebrations were in order.