Nationals: The Magic: The Gathering Players Of Today May Never Understand What They Are Missing, by Chris Black
This is probably long overdue, but since I’ve been writing about other things I almost feel duty-bound to try and also articulate my thoughts on this tournament, even though it has been gone for over five years now.
It doesn’t really feel like that long if I’m honest. I’d like to be hyperbolic and say that it feels longer, woe is us for the massive hole in tournament play that Nationals has left behind (capitalisation will be throughout this piece, a small homage if you will), but it doesn’t. I know why it doesn’t though; each and every Nationals tournament stands out in my mind more clearly than almost any other memories that I have. I say this because the summer in Ireland used to revolve around Nationals, it brought us together, with many small community related events that were organised throughout the run up to the most prestigious and important tournament of the year. Simply put; Nationals was a community-centric event, organised by the players, for the players. And it made us feel welcome.
Many people have written articles about how Magic: the Gathering has given them an outlet for their creative side, shelter in their darkest hours, or a group of friends they would never have had otherwise. Others say it has saved their lives. The gravitas and importance of what this game can give us cannot be understated, and while I cannot claim to anything as significant as a lifesaving epiphany, what the game has given me (and make no mistake, that is a great deal – almost being dumped by my now fiancé notwithstanding) can be traced back to the single greatest part of the year. Irish Nationals.
Rather than belabour the same points that we had when Nationals was put out to pasture, I intend to tell two stories, each highlighting why this tournament was very much a life changing event for me with an impact that still resonates today, namely my first (not the first, just mine – 2007 if we want to be exact, and we do) and the very last (2011).
In 2007, I was a student bum living the high life of waking up late in the afternoon, avoiding going to university at all costs, and nursing the new and confusing concept of a hangover, which hadn’t seemed to plague me in my late teens. I remember very well the first time I decided to get back into Magic: the Gathering, Future Sight was the new set, and it was so very different that I barely recognised the cards from my casual foray as a wide-eyed newbie during the days Urza’s artifact tinkering. I remember being incredibly bored, slightly hungover, and even slightly-er guilty about missing class, so I decided to be productive and head into town to check out the old Magic store that I knew still existed. Little did I know what precious productivity I did have was about to disappear down a black hole of drafting and learning eight massive sets before a tournament that I was yet to qualify for.
My first chance to play a competitive event was a Nationals qualifier. I had been spending a month trying to build a Johira of the Gihitu deck (I’m not kidding) and it hadn’t really come together, shockingly. Without foreshadowing, my now best friend suggested I try a mono red deck. For those who are interested, it had Gathan Raiders, Fiery Temper and Blood Knight, and if that isn’t sweet I don’t know what is. I managed to come second in the qualifier, booking me a spot in the Big Event. We went for a few beers after we all qualified, and I made slow inroads into a new testing group. I wasn’t yet ready to hustle with the big boys, Conor Holmes and associates, who were notorious for putting up a strong performance at every event, but I was happy with how things were progressing, and there was a real impetus to get better and play more and more Magic more and more of the time.
I read MTG articles, I prepared, I took my mono red deck to bed with me and slept on the plastic deck box so that it could whisper its fiery secrets into my mind (go to the dome, it would say, and I would have odd dreams of living in a vast white biodome with Kylie Minogue – this may or may not be true). When the time finally came to head down the tournament, I was a little apprehensive. It was quite a lot of money to stay in this hotel; in fact, fourteen of us were crashing in one rented villa on the hotel sight, and I still couldn’t afford it (the illustrious Conor Holmes et al would be in the very same house – swoon!). I didn’t really know any of these guys. A few of the people who I would have a drink with after draft weren’t going, and the rest were only shadowy half formed acquaintances with whom I feared I would have very little in common with.
This turned out to be very very far from the truth. The people who I spent the majority of that weekend with and now my best friends, and form the iron core of my friendship group. There is no one I would rather spend my time with, and I would consider each one to be as close as family. This is all because our friendship was forged in the fires of the grand weekend road trip that was Nationals.
When we finally arrived in a small town outside the outskirts of Dublin, we had a beer, jammed some games, had another five beers and a great night, and went back to our cold, hard, tile floor as happy a group as could be, content in the knowledge that I would probably get crushed the following day regardless of my physical state.
I remember almost every round more vividly than the day that I graduated from university, or the day that I finally because a qualified professional. The first round, I played again one of the greatest people I have ever met, Pa Curran. He confessed that he hadn’t played in some time, and I confessed that I had been playing for a very short period. We both laughed and rolled for the play. Pa won, and I remember that I was so nervous, that I shuffled my entire deck, sideboard included, and mulliganed to five, drawing a Cryoclasm before I noticed. I told Pa, and he simply informed me ‘sure it’s alright, just take the sideboard cards out and draw five again’. Having no idea that was massively against the rules, I agreed, drew five, along with another Cryoclasm that had supposedly migrated back to the sideboard, and died to a Tarmogoyf with a Loxodon Warhammer on it.
Now, even I in my newness knew that this was likely to be a poor matchup for a Sligh style deck, but since I had seen a Temple Garden in game one, which I had cast a Cryoclasm on (yes, the cheating is frankly absurd at this point, but I swear I didn’t know the rules), I sided the rest of them in and hopped on the play.
In both games two and three, Pa got stuck on one or two land, and I ran away with the game. He later told me that he had sided out his Temple Gardens to rely on Brushlands that couldn’t be hit by Cryoclasm. This, ladies and gentlemen, is one of the reasons he is the greatest person alive.
Every round progressed like this, twists and turns that are etched indelibly in my memory, there to remain for the rest of my life. The famous Conor Holmes, my best friend, won this Nationals. I came thirteenth, having watched a storm deck fail to kill me and a Seismic Assault / Life from the Loam deck whiff, causing it’s owned to eat a Wall of Roots mid game.
Some of us went partying afterwards, further solidifying friendships that would last for a lifetime. In fact, we had to break back into the chalet after we were locked out, and this story featured in Conor’s wedding speech. At the end of this weekend, I felt that I had achieved something. I had run a gauntlet of good players, acquitted myself well, and hungered for more. What I hungered for, however, was not necessarily the game, and I realise that now. The game itself, while fantastic, is only a support for the social aspect of the community and friendships that we build around it. The absolute pillar of this community, the steel rods in the concrete, was Nationals. It gathered us together, North of Ireland versus the South (in a friendly way, I swear), built teams, galvanised us, sold product by the box load for drafts, got people into stores, and connected us in a way that we haven’t seen in the community since.
On a much sadder note, I turn now to the last ever Nationals, in 2011. I remember testing Valakut on Magic Online, as I was living away from Belfast at the time for work, and had no one to play with during the week. Result were mixed, although I was confident it was the right deck for the tournament, and I had prepared appropriately. Draft was core set, so I suppose it wasn’t all good. I had a reputation to uphold; I had won the last two Nationals in a row, and as unlikely as the second had seemed at time, I knew it was possible I could top eight again at least. I had booked the Friday off work, and was going to head back to Belfast on Thursday night (Nats was up North this year, a departure from the norm), see all the guys, have some beers, and let the festivities commence. I was ecstatic, Nationals was the best time of year bar absolutely nothing and I was set to enjoy it.
Unfortunately, I received a phone call from my Dad the second I left work. My stomach fell through the floor. My grandmother had died suddenly during the night, and she was going to be buried on Saturday. Writing this now, I can still feel the mixture of emotions that swirled through me on that day, sadness, despair, guilt, shame, anger, shame again. But sadness, always the sadness. I’m not ashamed to admit that I cried. Blubbered like a baby in fact. Walking out of the hospital that day is likely close to the worst I’ve ever felt.
Why shame? Why anger? Why guilt? The other two are self-explanatory I should hope. Let me try and explain those mentioned in this paragraph without sounding like a psychopath or a monster. Shame? Shame and, I suppose, guilt, are both for the same reason. I didn’t visit as often as I should. I had, luckily, seen her recently. I remember thinking, ‘oh, it’s way easier to get to her house than I thought it would be, I should totally do that again, and soon’ (I couldn’t drive at the time). But soon wasn’t soon enough. There wouldn’t be any more visits. I still feel ashamed about that, the deep burning kind that brings a lump to your throat despite your best efforts. Anger? Well, that’s intertwined with the shame and the guilt. They’re one big happy family as it turns out, ask any psychologist. You see, I was angry that I was going to miss Nationals.
I’ve never said that out loud before, and I must admit it’s more difficult to put it into words that I would have thought. It’s selfish, it’s monstrous, and I feel awful, but it was something I genuinely felt at the time. I considered worming out of the funeral. After all, I don’t believe in any of that stuff anyway, so why would it make a difference if I’m there or not, right? That would make sense if funerals are for the dead, but they aren’t. Luckily I managed to pull my s**t together and act like a human being, but it was closer than I would have liked to admit.
To cut a long and rambling story short, I did actually go to Nationals that weekend, just not as a competitor. I felt out of place at the funeral. I didn’t really know my extended family any more, and I kind of just wanted to be on my own. Mum was surrounded by her siblings, and they were swapping stories and drinking and doing all the good stuff that Irish people do when one of their own dies. It was comforting. But I felt out of place. I stayed for a good long while, and eventually I decided to leave. I went to go and see my other family, the ones from the North of Ireland, the ones from the South of Ireland, and the ones from all the places in between, and beyond its borders. When I eventually got to Bangor, the TO handed me a whiskey, a beer, and a pat on the shoulder. She knew. And when I went into the event hall, not as a competitor, but as a spectator, surrounded by my friends, my surrogate family, I started to feel a lot better. And then I had my own, private, Irish wake.
You see, none of this is particularly relevant to the card game. None of this should be important to the company that makes it. Today, we acknowledge profit margins, shareholders, the bottom line. And it’s right for Wizards to do that, they are a business after all. What makes me sad, most of all, isn’t that I don’t get to play Nationals anymore, although I obviously want it back for selfish reasons as well. It makes me sad that, with the growth of the game, so many people will never have the experience that I did.
They’ll never have their own, home grown talent that is recognised on a proper tournament stage.
They’ll never have the feeling of qualifying for a prestigious event. They might never go away for a weekend with a bunch of people they’ve only met for a trip inside their own country to play for the honour of representing their country (I understand that WMCQs exist, but it’s almost insulting to call them a pale imitation of a two day draft/constructed/draft constructed event).
They’ll never have Irish Nationals Fantasy team picks.
They’ll never see an Irish Nationals Hall of Fame induction (Sean Fitzgerald’s induction consisted of ‘If this was an alternate universe, I would standing here saying, “By GOD Sean, you’ve done it again! How do you manage it?” – he came 9th about six times).
They’ll just never get the sense of community that we shared throughout this Island when Nationals was the main event of the season.
I’m not sure if this is a desperate plea, a nostalgia trip, or an attempt to start a concerted effort to revitalise the ‘Save Nationals’ movement, but I feel like I have to do something, as our community and everything we built over four years of playing Magic: the Gathering like our lives depended on it slowly subsides into the background noise of modern life. Nationals was the core, it was our glue, and it made us into one of the most enviable, hospitable gaming communities that is ever likely to be seen. I want our glue back. I think we deserve it. More than that, I think future Magic players deserve it, they just need the opportunity to find that out.