Chapter 12-The Deck


The Deck  

AS MAGIC CHATTER rose in volume – in stores, in magazines and, for the most savvy of players, on Usenet boards like — the slang bandied around by its players grew in significance. Magic language reinforced their commonality and helped to define them as a new and distinctive group. While much of it was banal – pet names for specific cards, for example – some of it was becoming increasingly analytical as players fumbled for terminology to describe what was taking place in their games. In 1995, one such term sprung from the work of pioneering internet writers Paul Pantera and Rob Hahn ~ a phrase that had been hovering seemingly on the tips of Magic players’ tongues worldwide. When it was finally uttered it became immediately axiomatic and is still used today by players who sense its meaning in their bones. It was a term that at its birth elucidated something players had been trying to grasp in their burgeoning understanding of the game’s strategy. Which formed, and was vocalised, because it had to be; forced into being by perhaps the most important stack of cards ever shuffled in the game’s history. While the term itself was the deceptively simple two-word blend, ‘card advantage’, the deck which inspired it was anything but. It came to life in the California sunshine, fattened on the vine to lip-smacking complexity, just down the road from Stanford University.  

PALO ALTO NESTLES in the northwest corner of Santa Clara County, all concrete and tennis shoes atop land that was once orchards. On hot days, of which there are plenty, residents say you can feel the ghosts of those departed trees and the tangible absence of the shade they once provided. One tree in particular does remain: a handsome 1,000-year-old redwood in nearby parkland named El Palo Alto, the ‘tall stick’ after which the city is named.  

Palo Alto is also prime Silicon Valley territory. Its inhabitants are some of the most wealthy and best educated in the United States and work in their droves for Apple, Google, Facebook and the other grandees of the internet age. Before those concerns colonised this slice of America’s West Coast though, the brainpower incubating at Stanford University and some of the nearby University of California campuses was sinking its considerable talents into other pursuits. Zak Dolan, the inaugural Magic world champion, pursued post-graduate studies at Stanford, for example. But his achievements were eclipsed by another Palo Alto local who played a pivotal role in Magic history. His radical approach to the game defined an era. And his creations propagated rapidly through the local area before, appropriately, firing the nascent online culture around Magic. He went from local hero to world- renowned innovator, made famous by the possibilities of the internet technology being developed all around him. His name was Brian Weissman and he was Magic’s first celebrity.  

In 1994, Weissman was a sophomore at UC Santa Cruz, 35 miles to the south of his hometown Palo Alto. An angular, athletic guy with dark hair and sunken ice-blue eyes, he had a competitive streak that had been nurtured by high-school team sports. As a student, that same drive had made him a fixture of the Bay-Area tournament scene established around the seminal early 1990s video game Street Fighter. One weekend, though, on a regular trip home to see his girlfriend, he stumbled upon a new fascination that immediately stirred his competitive — as well as creative — juices.  

At a friend’s birthday that January, Magic made its first appearance in Weissman’s life. A mutual friend, who had himself just picked up the game, had managed to find two Unlimited Edition Starter Decks as a gift for the host — and, to ensure a good game, had brought along his own newly acquired cards, too. The decks were divvied up and a splinter group from the party camped out on the floor to play the new game. Weissman watched from the edges, impatient for his friends to finish up. But, after an hour or so, it became clear he was waiting in vain. In time-honoured fashion, he decided that if he couldn’t beat them, he had better join them, and sat down to try the party-crashing card game.  

The enthusiasm in Weissman’s voice today when he recounts his first game of Magic is something golden; confirmation of a halcyon past each Magic player treasures, hoping quietly it is shared by others. Perhaps before we had online statuses to update, it was an experience we never got to trumpet with the same exuberance we might have today. But no matter how great or how modest a Magic player, everyone got started somewhere. Everyone wrestled complicated cards, fuzzy rules, and a head-scratching new way of gaming. Everyone felt a spark. “It was almost 20 years ago,” says Weissman today in his rapid-fire patter over the phone from his Seattle home, “and I remember it vividly.”  

For most Magic players who picked up the game in its very early days, only one thing mattered: size. Big gnarly creatures were the order of the day – the bigger the numbers in the bottom right hand corner, the quicker you could reduce your opponent’s life from 20 to zero. Strategy such as it was, wasn’t particularly more complicated than that – either play lots of cheap-to-cast small creatures to overwhelm your opponent, or steadily build up your mana over a number of turns to summon harder-to-cast, big creatures which could kill your opponent in a couple of attacks if left unchecked. The visceral thrill of calling into battle fearsome monsters attracted many to the latter tactic.  

One of Magic’s most ubiquitous big monsters in those days was Craw Wurm; a six-to-cast, 6/4 green Creature. It did nothing flashy – other than kill your opponent in four turns (four attacks, one each turn, of six damage) unless destroyed, removed or blocked. As a card printed at common, it was also a card many players came across when opening their first packs or playing the game with friends’ newly born collections. It may not have been much, but Craw Wurm was instantly ‘gettable’ to all new players. And, like many others at the time, Weissman tapped his six mana and slapped one down on the floor with relish during his first game. Enchanting it with a card called Flight was his next move and created a formidable threat. As the name suggests, the card Flight grants a creature the ‘flying’ ability. Such a creature can usually only be blocked by an opposing creature with flying, thus making it more likely to attack unimpeded and deal its damage to an opponent. Things were looking good for Weissman. His opposite number, though, was holding him at bay and building up a threat of his own: the powerful green creature Gaea’s Liege. Gaea’s Liege can tap to transform any land in play into a green-mana-producing Forest. Then, when it attacks, its power and toughness become equal to the number of Forests the defending player controls. As more and more are transformed by the Liege’s special ability, it becomes an ever-more dangerous creature, ready to swing in with the fatal blow.  

Gradually Weissman’s opponent took control of the game. First, he destroyed Flight so that he could block the Craw Wurm. Then he began turning Weissman’s lands into Forests, one by one. Despondently, the Magic debutant glanced at his hand. Barring one random green card, it was packed with blue cards, which he would never be able to cast now. All his blue-producing Islands had been transformed and he was staring down a potentially huge Gaea’s Liege. The outlook was bleak.  

As expected, the Gaea’s Liege swung at Weissman, swelled to 12/12 having turned a dozen of his lands into Forests. If Weissman were to block with his Craw Wurm, it would die and leave him facing a lethal Liege the following turn (the Wurm can only survive four damage and deal six, insufficient to kill the attacking Liege when blocking – or to survive itself). It was looking dicey and Weissman was ready to quit – until he considered what that one random green card in his hand was; an inconspicuous spell by the name of Fog.  

A green instant, Fog could be played at almost any time in the game, including during Weissman’s opponent’s turn. It could also be cast with the Forests that had otherwise thwarted Weissman’s plans. As his opponent attacked eagerly, sensing victory, Weissman responded by tapping a single Forest for one green mana and casting Fog. His opponent grabbed the card. Creatures attack and block as normal, but none deal any damage, it read. The Liege went from being a game-winning threat to useless: it would not deal its damage but having attacked would still remain tapped and unable to block. On his turn Weissman dutifully attacked with his Craw Wurm and finished off his stranded opponent. “So,” says Weissman gleefully, “I won my first ever game of Magic with Fog and from that point on I was hooked.” It would not be the last time in his Magic career that Weissman turned defence to his advantage.  

STILL STOKED FROM his first Magic experience, Weissman returned to Santa Cruz and excitedly showed the game to his friend and fellow Street Fighter player, Matt Wallace. Weissman had bought three Starter Decks of Unlimited Edition, but in doing so had blown. his student budget. Wallace, though, had a little more disposable income, a car and the same competitive streak as Weissman, all of which were necessary for the pair to procure more of the ultra-scarce gaming cards.  

 “The store where I bought my original cards was called Gamescape in Palo Alto,” says Weissman. “For whatever reason, when it was extremely hard to find Unlimited cards anywhere, this one store had them. The rumour was that the owner of the store was close friends with one of the original guys at Wizards of the Coast and therefore could get cards for the store.” It is tempting to imagine Peter Adkison stopping off at Gamescape on his epic drive to Gencon four months previously — if he did, he unwittingly aided Weissman’s rise to the top of the Magic pile.  

In any case, Gamescape (sadly now closed) was in an enviable position and exploited it fully. Each day, before they opened for business they would open a display box’s worth of Unlimited Boosters — 36 15-card Booster Packs each containing one rare card, 3 uncommons and 11 commons and lands ~ and sell the individual cards for a flat fee on a first-come, first-served basis. Rares and uncommons were displayed in a ring binder while commons were sorted in a box and left to be picked over by the card-starved clientele. It was rudimentary compared to today’s secondary market, but punters flocked to the store in their droves. “People would line up outside waiting for it to open,” says Weissman. “You could buy any rare from the binder for $2 and any uncommon. for $1. It didn’t matter what they were. That included all the crazy cards — all mint edition. I clearly remember going in and seeing the binder full of Moxen and actually passing them up for stuff my primitive neophyte’s Magic brain thought was better, like Lord of the Pit.”  

Today, a mint condition Unlimited Mox – 20 years out of print and counting – costs over $1000 from a major retailer. Lord of the Pit costs around $10, but summed up everything that made Magic exciting: it was a black card in an era when various forms of heavy metal ruled our teenage lives. It was a 7/7 flying, trampling demon, which you had to appease each turn by sacrificing your own creatures. It was a high risk, high reward card that oozed dark fantasy flavour — and precisely the kind of thing that gave the Association Against the Seduction of Children fits. It was immediately impressive to early players who overlooked the subtle but devastating power of the Moxen. Lord of the Pit’s overt fantasy stylings hooked players from the word go, even if it was the game’s subtle mechanical complexities that kept them hooked. In that sense, Weissman was no exception.  

Just as he had with Street Fighter, the Japanese language studies major immersed himself in his new favourite game and began to explore its nuances. Richard Garfield’s baby was still a mysterious game — not everyone knew quite what cards actually existed, nor how the rules’ finer points worked, nor indeed what, if any, rules covered deck construction (other than the 40-card minimum mentioned in the first small rule book squeezed inside Starter Decks). Magic was wild -and only with the formation of the Duelist’s Convocation, Wizards’ official tournament sanctioning body, in late 1993, had any guise of standardisation been imposed on the game. Richard Garfield had from the very beginning envisioned Magic tournaments for his intellectually challenging game and the DC (later the DCI, with an ‘I’ for international) was the organ that made tournament play possible. Still, information only trickled out of Wizards, via The Duelist, via early internet channels, via word of mouth. Until players heard for sure that what they were doing was ‘wrong’, they were happy to experiment. “The genie was out,” says Weissman, “and people were discovering things.”  

After building a towering mono-black deck using four or five Mox Jets and the power of several Demonic Tutors (a sorcery which lets its caster search for any card in their deck and put it straight into their hand), Weissman started to build a deck strictly out of artifacts. Inspired by the second Magic expansion Antiquities, which provided many cards which interacted with the artifact card type, Weissman soon had a 300-card stack built around generating enormous amounts of mana with some of the new set’s additions to the Magic card pool. The Urza lands (which could produce more than a single mana) and Candelabra of Tawnos, an artifact that could untap lands, became its mainstays. With this he battled on an almost daily basis against his now equally Magic- obsessed friend Wallace (wielding a blue and white deck) on the sticky table-tops of the UC Santa Cruz Recreation Center.  

The pairs’ formidable creations, though, would not fly in the emerging world of DCI-sanctioned tournament play. For their first official competition, the two friends had to jettison some of their favourite tricks (the Moxen were, for example, restricted to one of each sort per deck) and learn some new ones. Weissman ditched his artifact deck and returned to a black-based deck, splashing a little white and green to help deal with opposing enchantments and artifacts, something black cards do not do well by themselves. But, combined with powerful cards like Icy Manipulator, Royal Assassin, Meek Stone and Mind Twist, the deck still packed a mighty punch: just as Weissman had won his first-ever game of Magic, he rode his new slimline stack to victory in his first-ever tournament, too.  

It was a spur to the competitor in him and proof that he and Wallace were on to something in their approach to the game: “It wasn’t just me and Matt beating up on the local casual gamers,” says Weissman. “People had come from the Bay Area over the hill to Santa Cruz to play in the tournament and I managed to win it. So that was really a defining moment and validated what I wanted to do with the game.” Flush with success, Weissman redoubled his efforts to crack Magic and fine-tuned his approach via epic gaming sessions with Wallace. Crucial to the way the pair understood the game was their decision to alter the rules to suit their tastes for drawn-out battles: instead of playing each game from a starting total of 20 life, they decided to play with 40 life each. This had the effect of completely warping many of the game’s fundamentals, effectively halving the power of all the creatures, for example. Aggressive, cheap creatures, like the ones Bertrand Lestrée would ride to a runner’s-up place in the World Championships that year, had no place in the pair’s games. They were completely outclassed by the expensive creatures the pair could cast with their well-developed resources. Similarly, the pair realised that with such high life totals, they could use life points as another resource, one that would afford them the time to reach the complex late-game that they both enjoyed, where they could cast powerful game- ending creatures and would win after a dramatic back-and-forth. Inadvertently, the pair had hit upon an entirely new paradigm and it was one in which Wallace’s blue-white deck seemed to consistently come out on top.  

AS MAGIC FEVER took hold all over the US, the tournament scene exploded around Weissman and Wallace. The Street Fighter buddies smelled blood and attempted to distil what they were learning from their titanic tussles into a tournament-legal deck for a forthcoming event called Mana Fest. Mana Fest was the biggest tournament in Northern California at the time and approximately 500 people were expected to attend. The thrill of competing against such a vast and high-quality field drove Weissman and test- partner Wallace on – and forced them to look at why Wallace’s blue-white deck, given enough time, was proving unbeatable.  

As Weissman’s mana-driven artifact deck ran out of steam, the blue-white deck was leaning on a particular group of cards to grind out victory. The first was the blue instant Ancestral Recall, which for one blue mana allows its caster to draw three cards. The second was blue sorcery Braingeyser, which lets its caster draw as many cards as he or she spends in mana. The third was the blue creature Sindbad, which could be tapped to draw a card, and the final key component was a land from Arabian Nights, Library of Alexandria. As well as tapping for a colourless mana, it could be tapped to draw its controller a card if he or she had exactly seven cards in hand.  

Many players had in isolation enjoyed playing with these cards or noted how each of them had a fun or powerful effect. But what the pair of UC Santa Cruz students, locked in long and gruelling games against each other, were able to do so effectively was to identify precisely what these cards had in common: all of them allowed their caster to net cards. Ancestral Recall (also one of the so-called ‘Power nine’) does so most obviously, giving a one-shot benefit of three cards, for the paltry cost of a single blue mana. Just like Black Lotus or the Moxen, it breaks one of the game’s fundamental rules: at the start of each turn, a player draws a single card from his or her library (or deck). By casting Ancestral Recall and drawing three, a player can essentially skip forward the development of his resources by three turns. Perhaps not the mana laid out on the table in front of him or her, which Weissman’s artifact deck was able to generate in spades. But the less obvious resource that the pair were beginning to perceive as vital to success: the contents of one’s hand. The more cards in hand you have (seven being the starting total and maximum hand size allowed at the end of a turn), the more options you have. All of the above cards help deliver the resource of cards in hand in one way or another. Permanents (cards which stay in play unlike sorceries or instants) like Sindbad and Library of Alexandria can even do it over a number of turns, building a gradual, but often-unbeatable advantage for their controller. It was this phenomenon, this ‘card advantage’, that Wallace and Weissman latched on to as crucial to victory. Their discovery would change Magic strategy forever.  

In the meantime, with Mana Fest edging closer, Weissman hit upon the idea of combining a favourite tool from his black deck with Wallace’s blue and white cards: Mind Twist. Mind Twist can be cast for one black mana and any number of other mana to force an opponent to discard that many cards. If drawing cards was so strong, the pair reasoned, the inverse must also be true. With Mind Twist, a player can again impose superiority of cards in hand, boasting a full grip with which to kill an opponent stripped. of defensive options. It was another huge stride forward for the pair’s deck-building and, as the tournament approached, their theories began to fall neatly into place. There was just one hitch.  

 “The problem,” says Weissman, “was that we wanted to play a deck with four copies of Library of Alexandria, which wasn’t restricted at the time [it would be restricted to one-per-deck in May 1994] and we wanted to play four copies of Mind Twist. But between us we didn’t own eight of those, so we flipped a coin to determine who would get to go and represent our brains trust at the tournament. Matt ended up winning the coin toss and we put together a deck that we actually called ‘The Deck.” Born out of necessity, its singular name has gone down in Magic history.  

The first iteration of The Deck was a blue-black-white deck built on a core of cards which generated card advantage (such as Mind Twist and Library of Alexandria), permission spells (which stop an opposing spell as it is being cast) such as Counterspell and Power Sink, flexible removal in the form of Disenchant, mana acceleration in the form of Moxen and Mana Vaults, and extremely powerful game-ending creatures: four Juggernauts, gleaned from Weissman’s artifact deck, and four Mahamoti Djinns, a giant blue flyer that had been backbreaking in Wallace’s blue-white deck. This combination of cards allowed The Deck’s pilot to control the game – by countering opposing spells or destroying opposing threats – until the late-game state where those powerful creatures could be cast and ridden to victory, just like the long grinding games the pair had playtested together. Similarly, if The Deck’s pilot drew Moxen and Mana Vaults in their opening hand, he could accelerate to a proxy of that late-game state where they had plenty of mana in play and could cast a backbreaking Mind Twist, creating a similar state to the one Weissman had. experienced in those long games when he had run out of options as Wallace sat opposite him, replenishing his hand. So long as the pilot could reach that state, life total became fairly meaningless: defend, destroy, counter, control and contain. Only the final life-point of the controller’s 20 actually mattered, the pair reasoned. Stay alive long enough and the sheer weight of card advantage packed into The Deck would do exactly what it had done in all the pair’s games together: simply, inevitably win the game. While not perfectly streamlined, weighing in at 64 cards — four more than the newly minted minimum deck size of 60 cards -and containing a few whimsical additions like Chaos Orb and Argivian Archaelogist, it was a deck of unprecedented focus and unusually attritional qualities. Mana Fest had never seen anything like it. Accordingly, says Weissman. “Matt just annihilated the field. The Deck destroyed everybody.”  

It would be the zenith of Wallace’s Magic career. A few months later, he dropped out of college to take up a job at a company called Netcom, one of the first internet service providers. As real-life commitments took over, he ran out of time for Magic, leaving Weissman their collective card pool and the responsibility to develop The Deck further. Weissman was happy to oblige, fine-tuning the potent pile of cards as the latest set Legends was released in June 1994. Legends brought with it a host of powerful new options for The Deck at just the right time: on 1 August 1994, after a brutal showing at 1994’s US National Championships, won by Bo Bell, one of The Deck’s staple cards, Mind Twist, was restricted to a single copy per deck by the Duelist’s Convocation. It was time to innovate again.  

Weissman’s tinkering quickly yielded results. One by one, local ringers fell to him, and soon he began to dominate all of the area’s regular tournaments. The Deck was ready for a bigger test, and in February 1995 it would face one in the form of a giant tournament called Dundracon. In preparation, Weissman turned The Deck into a sleek card-advantage machine, the like of which no one had seen before. The most notable refinements were the inclusion of Disrupting Scepter, which can be activated in its controller’s turn to force the opponent to discard a card; Mana Drain, an upgrade on the standard Counterspell; and Moat from Legends, an enchantment which prevents all creatures without the flying ability from attacking.  

What Moat amply demonstrates is how card advantage can be leveraged not only by drawing extra cards or forcing one’s opponent to discard them. If an opposing deck is playing a dozen creatures, bereft of the flying ability, with which they intend to kill their opponent, all those dozen creatures are nullified by Moat, a single card. With a Moat in play, each time Weissman’s opponent drew a creature, he was in effect drawing a blank card, thus conceding card advantage. As long as Weissman could protect Moat with his suite of counterspells, he could sit back and defend until his advantage became overwhelming. Even the only creature Weissman selected for The Deck aided that plan: Serra Angel, a 4/4 flying creature that does not tap when it attacks.  

At the time, Serra Angel was one of only four creatures in the entire game that did not tap to attack – and the only one with flying. The significance of this ability was that Serra Angel could both attack (soaring over Weissman’s own Moat) and remain untapped to block opposing attacking creatures. With an offensive and defensive function rolled into one, she was perfect for The Deck. And, Weissman realised, she was only needed to finish the job off. Instead of playing a horde of creatures, Weissman would play all the elements he needed to control the game, until his opponent had been fully contained. While others were still obsessed with churning out creatures as quickly as possible — just like the Craw Wurms they had learned the game with – Weissman could see that this was unnecessary. The Deck would simply answer all threats thrown at it and draw out the game until its advantage became insurmountable. Only then were his Serra Angels needed at all. So, flying in the face of all Magic wisdom at the time, he included only two in his list of cards – the only creatures in his entire deck.  

At Dundracon, over two days of intense duelling, Weissman went on to lose only a single game (each match comprising up to three games), ultimately claiming victory over a mono-red deck centred around the powerful enchantment Blood Moon in the final. It was a watershed moment for Magic. The radical, near-creatureless Deck had swept all comers (and prevailing Magic notions) aside. It immediately sparked frenzied discussion amongst open-mouthed onlookers, including a number of Wizards staff, who rushed to speak to the 20-year-old at the finish. As Jim Linn, East Coast playtester and by then one of the Wizards employees in attendance later wrote, It was the first time I think the Magic environment had seen a deck like that. People were just amazed at it-I was amazed at it; I couldn’t believe it was so successful. Within a month or two, everybody in the Bay Area was playing a version of Weissman’s deck, while others in the Magic-playing universe tried to decipher its contents. It earned column inches in The Duelist and some of the very first virtual column inches, too. In short, it was a game-changer. In recognising the fundamentals of the early Magic environment and breaking all the rules to design a deck capable of beating nearly everything thrown at it, Brian Weissman solved Magic’s first ‘metagame’, creating the optimal deck for the conditions the game was played in at the time. The Deck, though, was not simply a one-off pile of cards bringing fleeting success. Its design philosophy was so penetrating, so honed in on the mechanics which made Magic function as a game, that it would become the game’s first ‘archetype’ – a deck design that would be replicated time and time again as new cards and new environments appeared. By almost any measure, The Deck earned. its definite article. And soon, as its fame spread on new media channels among a fanatical Magic crowd, its creator Weissman was elevated to legend status.