Roy Tang

Programmer, engineer, scientist, critic, gamer, dreamer, and kid-at-heart.

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Magic the Gathering Restrospective

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Last week, Wizards announced that they were sunsetting DCI numbers and Planeswalker Points, this felt like an appropriate time to do a retrospective on my 25 years playing Magic the Gathering. Strap yourselves in, this is going to be a long one!

The Early Years

I started playing MTG in my fourth year of high school, so that’s around sometime 1994-1995. The most recent expansion releases at that time were The Dark and Fallen Empires.

The blame for this lifelong hobby/obsession lies solely at the feet of the older brother of one of my HS batchmates, who introduced me and a few friends to the game. (Said older brother would later go on to become one of the first few MTG Philippines national champions). Back then each of us only had a few cards and supply was tight. I remember there was only one nearby store in SM North that sold booster packs, and they only had a few come in every other week or so. The earliest card I remember opening from a booster pack was a Juggernaut from Revised. (I remember being amazed because it can’t be blocked by walls!)

Our early decks in those times were super crude, with vanilla creatures all over. Craw Wurm was a big deal! We called decks that opened with turn one Forest into Scryb Sprites as “fast decks!”

We carried on playing the game into our college days of course. We hung out with a group of other Magic players and played a lot of random decks. Most of it was casual in-between classes games, and I’m pretty sure I missed at least one exam because I was too busy playing Magic.

Around this time, we also started joining some tournaments, most of them held at a restaurant along Katipunan called “Chinoys”. These tournaments don’t appear in my DCI history, so either they weren’t official DCI tournaments or I have some other DCI number floating around in the ether with history I’ll never be able to recover.

I remember running a red green deck with Taigas and Lightning Bolts and Kird Apes and such. I also had the classic Channel + Fireball combo in the deck, with cards like Tinder Wall and Orcish Lumberjack for the random off chance of a turn 2 or 3 kill. (I couldn’t afford a Black Lotus for the turn 1 kill!)

This was a time before internet usage was widespread, so netdecks weren’t really a big thing yet. So there was a huge variation in the decks we’d face in these tournaments and casually elsewhere. Some of the decks I remember playing against during this era:

During this time, one of the main sources of MTG info was Inquest magazine. It included things like card lists, rumors and info on upcoming sets, MTG puzzles, trivia, interviews and other such fun stuff. I think I might even have a few copies lying around the house somewhere.

The Competitive Years

My earliest competitive tournament records under my DCI number were in 2001. One of them was this standard tournament held at the UP College of Science, I ran 5-3 and finished 7th place. I remember running a RGBw Invasion-era deck with battlemages (because I loved the card advantage) and even had a mascot Shivan Dragon in the deck.

One of my favorite Limited tournaments was also in 2001, it was an Invasion block team limited trios tournament held in Makati. Our team finished the swiss in the top two teams, so we got to play Rochester draft in the finals. I believe this was the only time I ever played Rochester draft. We ended up finishing second and going home with a box of Apocalypse.

My competitive play stepped up when I started working in Ortigas in 2003. In the upcoming years, many major tournaments would be held at the Robinson’s Galleria mall, only a 15 minute walk away from our office. A bunch of other office mates got into the hobby as well, which was really helpful for the purpose of playing competitively - we could borrow/trade cards easily and it also meant we had a pool of regularly accessible playtest partners.

My peak competitive years were during 2006-2009, where I played 575 tournament matches over those four years. It’s not a lot compared to some of the more hardcore members of the local community, as I mostly didn’t play smaller tournaments like FNMs. I usually played larger events like regionals, nationals qualifiers, grand prix trials, and pro tour qualifiers. At that time there were enough that I could usually play a larger event weekly or every other week. I had a few top 8 finishes in regionals, ptqs and gpts, but never managed any big finishes or things like qualifying for nationals or worlds.

The biggest tournaments I was able to play in during these years were Grand Prix Manila in 2006 and 2008. I enjoyed playing Grand Prixs so much I decided to play my first foreign tournament in Grand Prix Bangkok in 2009. I really enjoy Grand Prixs, they’re the highest-level events I’m able to play (since they’re open), so they’re super competitive, and it’s like an entire weekend devoted to Magic. Oh, and the venues are usually much better (more spacious, more food available, etc) than our usual weekend tournaments.

On and Off Again

From 2010 to the present, my MTG activity started to taper off. Both of my play groups kind of fell apart - my HS magic group had mostly moved overseas and many of the ones in my work group had lost interest. I was still playing regularly, but at a much lower frequency. I tried not to miss new set prereleases, those are always chill and fun and easy. I also still played in GPTs and PTQs and larger events like that, whenever the opportunity arose.

I also took the opportunity to keep playing Grand Prixs. I took the opportunity to travel whenever there was a Grand Prix in Singapore, since some of my HS magic group live there now and it was always an opportunity to play with them. So far I’ve ended up playing 12 Grand Prixs lifetime, 5 in Manila, 4 in Singapore, and 1 each in Bangkok, London and Seattle. You can see my Grand Prix tournament reports here. I’ve not had particularly awesome results for my GP runs either. Of 12 GPs, I’ve qualified for day 2 twice, both times finishing in the top 30-40.

Aside from the Grand Prixs, I’ve also managed to play overseas for a few other opportunities. I’ve done a prerelease at Hareruya in Tokyo, one in Barcelona, and a couple of years ago I got to do an RPTQ in Kuala Lumpur. Playing overseas and with players of different cultures is always a great change of pace and a good experience.

The problem with playing so sporadically of course was that it was difficult to get a good grip on the Standard format. From 2014 forward, I started preferring the Modern format for constructed, since it’s an eternal format and in theory decks last much longer and you don’t need to spend much time/resources keeping up. (Tell that to my banned Splinter Twin deck!) In 2019 some friends also started to get me into Pauper, but I’m not sure how much I like it yet.

The Online Era

That was for paper Magic. In 2009, I started playing Magic Online. By all accounts, Magic Online is a terrible platform and piece of software, but it was better than nothing! MTGO meant I could play Magic anytime at my convenience (subject to the whims of my internet connection). I ended up playing mostly limited of limited on MTGO, I think I only played constructed for one season with a cheap monored deck. The downside of course, was that MTGO was only slightly less expensive than paper Magic. Maybe someday I’ll gather stats on how much I spent on MTGO, but I suspect I won’t be too happy with the totals lol. My playing MTGO has been on and off though, similar to my paper magic run during the past decade or so. Typically I’ll favor one or the other during a particular season.

A lot of people will say they prefer playing in paper Magic over online, but I’m not one of those people. Paper has several distinct disadvantages for me over online:

  • having to go places to play, especially annoying given the poor traffic situation in Metro Manila. Most venues are also poorly ventilated and you spend a lot of time in uncomfortable chairs and unable to get food between rounds. Compare that to being able to play in the comforts of home.
  • having to shuffle. For longer tournaments, my being pasmado has always been problematic. In the later rounds, my hands to get very sweaty and thus my sleeves start to clump together, and also shuffling starts to become a problem.
  • much more difficult to acquire cards. Especially here in the PH where ordering singles online isn’t always viable or economically feasible.
  • having to watch out for cheating.
  • having to talk to people. I’m not as social as other players lol

A more robust and interesting online platform was the introduction of Magic Arena in 2018. I’ve been playing it since the closed beta and I much prefer playing on Arena than on MTGO, mainly because on Arena I can get by with being completely free to play, and still be able to play top-tier constructed decks (and occasionally some limited runs as well). Arena still has a lot of limitations - it doesn’t have my favorite format Modern for one thing, and it will be a while before older card sets are available there.

Stats and Competitiveness

While I’ve played a lot of Magic through the years (230th overall in lifetime PWPs in the country), I don’t consider myself a particularly good player. Maybe slightly above average at best. My paper MTG stats bear that out, with my overall win rate only being slightly higher than 50%. I wish I could get my stats for MTGO and Arena as well though - maybe that would improve things a bit.

A lot of the old timey players in the local community do know me though, due to playing a lot in the 2000s and being around for so long. On occassion, some people may have also referred to me as a “limited specialist” for some reason. My draft and sealed win rates are slightly better than my constructed win rates, but not by much. I do enjoy limited a lot, and a an important reason for that is that I don’t much like the “collectible” part of Magic. My favorite part of limited events is that I don’t have to worry about finding singles and putting together a deck beforehand, I just get to show, build a deck, and play.

Despite not considering myself a particularly good player, I still do identify as a competitive “spike". I attribute my poor win rate and lack of competitive success largely to being lazy. I don’t like to grind too much and I don’t like to spend too much time play testing, both of which are important factors in getting top tier results competitively. I can play reasonably well, but lack of consistent practice means my execution can be off, or I might miss more complex lines of play, but to get the best results you basically need to be playing perfectly almost all of the time.

Favorite Decks

Since I’m reminiscing, I want to remember some favorite constructed decks I’ve playted through the years:

  • for casual play, there was this fun deck I used to play back during the college days where I basically put together a bunch of fun cards into a mostly singleton deck featuring Questing Phelddagrif. This was before Commander was ever a thing!
  • prior to 2008, I was mostly a rogue deckbuilder, coming up with my own brews to bring to tournaments. One of my favorite rogue brews was this monoblack Korlash Heir to Blackblade deck I ran before regionals in 2007. (I ended up netdecking for regionals itself)
  • there was this fantastic Bant Finest Hour list that I played to a top 8 finish in the 2009 regionals. It was a fun aggro-control deck that also had a lot of challenging technical lines of play.
  • in 2015, I day 2’ed Grand Prix Manila with this great Jeskai Ascendancy standard deck that I had a blast playing.
  • for Modern, my current deck of choice is Grixis Death Shadow, which I last played in an MCQ in 2019. I love these interactive and grindy midrange decks where you try to gain incremental advantage every turn, very skill-testing.

Moving Forward

I’m not sure what to expect for me personally in terms of MTG moving forward. The main consideration is financial: since I’m not working full-time anymore, I can’t really be spending so much money on Magic as a hobby, especially for travelling. I’d probably still enjoy playing in a Grand Prix if there’s a local one, not sure if foreign GPs would still be worth it. And while paper tourneys are really the only way for me to enjoy Modern (when Modern is good), I’m not sure I’m cut out for travelling through Metro Manila traffic to spend my entire day in a hot crowded tournament venue anymore.

Even given all of that, I don’t want to say I’m quitting paper Magic. I’ve already said that too many times in the past. And I’m still sitting on a sizeable pool of cards (shared with some friends), so before I quit, I’d have to consider some kind of exit strategy for that (and probably my MTGO collection too).

Besides, I don’t even know what is going to happen to competitive paper Magic moving forward. As I recall, there weren’t any APAC GPs scheduled this year, whereas before we always had at least two per year. If there’s a new GP Manila, I’ll probably want to play that, but who knows when that will be?

I still love playing the game itself. I’ve tried various other CCGs over the years, both offline and online, and really nothing compares to Magic still. It is the king of CCGs in terms of being enjoyable and in terms of presenting fun and complex and interesting lines of play.

I think the likelihood is that Magic Arena may very well be my preferred platform for playing Magic moving forwards (assuming Wizards doesn’t screw it up because of tightening up the generosity for F2Pers like myself), with the occasional foray into paper tournaments as needed. Realistically, I may still be playing Magic another 25 years down the line!

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