It’s February in Chicago and it’s fucking dreary. The city, and everyone inside it, has frozen. I spend most of my time watching empty sidewalks from the interior of a barren restaurant, dreading another meager paycheck. If not for Valentine’s Day and Restaurant Week, it would be slim pickings. My mind, naturally, drifts toward my favorite diversions. Shimmering in my thoughts like a distant beacon is Lord’s Haüs, a retreat from the city’s doldrums and a chance to win the Golden Demon.
By my own estimation, I’m not much of a spike. Some might argue differently, and I wouldn’t blame them. Despite the occasional slip, I’ve been an evangelist against Taking This Shit Too Seriously: It’s not the Magic, it’s the Gathering, and so many other quaint platitudes. Which is all well and good and you’ll find me on that side of the fence most times. But not this time. On this particular weekend, at Lords Haüs, I’m playing for supreme bragging rights, and that’s the kind of thing to make me sit up in my chair. The route to picking a deck is straightforward. If the Powers That Be are sadistic enough to let you play with four Strip Mines, then you put Black Vise, Lightning Bolt, and Atog in your deck. However, being the incorrigible Logan Square-via-Brooklyn hipster that I am, I couldn’t just copy some else’s deck list; I needed something with enough originality to make a statement, but powerful enough to win all my matches. I squeezed four copies each of Argothian Pixies and Scryb Sprites into my deck – two creatures that can’t be blocked by Mishra’s Factory – and exhausted my creative output. I then seasoned the brew with Nine Essential Herbs and Spices plus bountiful Lightning Bolt effects (the best unrestricted card, don’t @ me) and had all the requisite tools for victory.
We decamped to rural Illinois, to a building reminiscent of the Great Northern from Twin Peaks. We were in paradise. The first day was spent carousing, singing, reconnecting. Hugs, handshakes, karaoke. Now it was tournament day. The Lords of the Pit brought their cuts, backpatches menacing, the originators of a now worldwide trend. The out-of-towners played side games to stay sharp. The Lords of the Pit Championship commenced.
I matched in round one against Michael Butzen, a man who puts the “old” in Old School. He and I go back to my first tournament where he slaughtered me with White Weenie. Butzen is kind, avuncular, and generous, and I expect to see him at every tournament that extends an invitation to the Lords’ Midwestern sister clubs. His friends in SoCal enticed him with dark whispers into playing Workshop Aggro for this event. My inclusion of Pixies in the main and Hurkyl’s Recall in my sideboard were prescient, and after I won the match Butzen clapped me on the shoulder and said with great feeling, “Take this thing down, man.”
My second opponent was the Shaman’s brother, Andrew McLennan - different from his brother in appearance, but alike in his ruthless arcane skill. Andrew is a collector, a real Patron of the Arts. He owns a stunning collection of artist proofs and alters, and is so principled a player that he will add a card to his deck for the sake of aesthetic pleasure alone, then shore up any loss of efficiency with pure skill. Yet, for his mercurial nature, his love of Serendib Efreet remains unshaken. He played an impressive number of Arabian Nights cards in his UG tempo deck, including Unstable Mutation, and I cursed my hubris for not asking to borrow City in a Bottle for this tournament, resolving to win only with cards I own. Andrew mulled to five in our third game, making a close match resolve somewhat unspectacularly.
Next I played Bob Agra and balled him easily.
My fourth opponent was a stranger to me until that day - Ryan Sala of Springfield, MO. As a man who runs a gaming store, competition is in his blood. His gregarious nature masked a prowess for magical cards. We played on either side of the bar downstairs, sipping beer and chatting as I proceeded to use the impressive power of Strip Mine to defeat an opponent who played cards that cost more than two mana. You can always tell when someone is good, though, and I couldn’t help but feel I cheesed my way through this pairing.
As if it were portended by the Fates, my dear friend and fellow Loganite Matt Moss and I were both undefeated going into the fifth round. Moss enjoyed bragging rights after defeating me at Madison Offensive IV, the first tournament where I deigned to be the only other Chicagoan to sleeve up the nefarious 1/2. If I lost here, he’d truly cement himself the master and I the apprentice. I couldn’t let that happen. I lost Game 1 as my creatures were Bolted away and he established dominance with Factory and Atog. The second game was odd; after a flurry of exchanges, I was left with a pair of Black Vises as Moss’s hand, strangely, began to fill as he declined to play a card for several turns. As I drew into more creatures, I decided it would be foolish to play them into obvious removal and elect to let the Vises slowly constrict my opponent instead. From there, successive Strip Mines finished the game. The third game was proof that Mishra’s Factory, for being susceptible to so much removal, manages to avoid Terror and Chain Lightning quite handily. After this victory, my position in the Top 8 was cemented, but I imagined it would not be the last I’d see of the bearded Iowan.
In the sixth and final round of Swiss, I matched against one of my oldest friends in Magic, a man who has been with me since the beginning of my journey. I cut my teeth playing prison mirrors with this man on his kitchen counter. Unfortunately for the great Danny Friedman, he had lost a pair-down match earlier and needed to beat me to stay in the tournament. If there ever was a person who had all the available skills to beat me at Magic, it was certainly Danny. My record against him in tournament play is not impressive. He played The Deck, and a cold, ruthless version at that, complete with maindeck Divine Offering. I was quickly emptied of resources in the first game as my adorable Sprites and Pixies were drawn into The Abyss. After sideboard, I added Serendibs to create a greater density of impactful threats and given Danny’s penchant for drawing Balance, I figured a horde of tiny creatures might not get the job done. I needed to see hands with fast mana and punish him for stumbling. I lead G2 with Land, Mox, Argothian Pixie but she was quickly banished. Without either player drawing Ancestral, our cards clashed against each other and our hands quickly diminished. Sure enough, I drew Serendib when it counted most. Danny finished as a most-honored 9th place, and again I beat a better player to advance.
By the time the Top 8 was announced, the night had gone long. The final octet posed for a photo then convened at the banquet table upstairs. Of the six opponents I’d played, four of them remained in the tournament like Banquo’s ghost.
Jason Paul and I battled in the quarterfinals. I still fondly recall that night at Donermen Tap when we patched him into the Lords. Jason lives a bit outside the city and is fairly quiet but thoughtful. We’re lucky to see him when we can, and he’s a real asset to the club. That said, I proceeded to draw the two best hands I’d seen in the tournament thus far and advanced quickly.
Ryan Sala upset Moss in the 4/5 quarterfinals match to challenge me yet again. With the Mossatog left smoldering behind in his wake, Ryan sought another victory over a meager aggro player to give Transmute Artifact and Guardian Beast their rightful time in the sun. Our first game lasted two dozen turns and Ryan spent most of them with at least one Jayemdae Tome in-play. He won and I had to win to stay alive. I got ahead quickly in Game 2, tapping out for a Serendib with an Argothian in play, Ryan with nothing but a pair of Tundras and a life total below eight. “Game Blouses,” I thought. Ryan grinned and remarked offhandedly about his penchant for shot-calling. He summoned Balance to the top of his deck and the game continued until my Atog slipped in beneath counter magic and we moved to the deciding third game. After a few cagey turns of development, Ryan cast Copy Artifact with the only two targets in-play being his own Ruby and my Ankh. I Shattered the Ruby in response, and Ryan made the extremely cunning play of Red Blasting his own Copy on the stack to avoid Copying said Ankh. After a couple turns, Ryan’s Guardian Beast stabilized the board. I was low on resources and with a pair of Ankhs and an Atog. At that point, Ryan had a wealth of mana, and had Disenchanted my Black Vise, so passing the turn to fill his hand availed me little. I attacked with the little guy and traded two Ankhs for the Beast. The Atog proceeded to get in enough subsequent chip damage for burn to finish Ryan off before he could close the door with Jayemdae Tome. Weary but undaunted, I advanced to the Finals.
At last, we’d reached the Finals. Rajah James had beat Bob, who rose to the Semis like a phoenix after our earlier pairing. Rajah is a member of Team Serious, a group of players who embodied the spirit of Old School before we knew it existed. We also owe our late obsession with Middle School to that crew, who cemented themselves as true trailblazers and generous hosts. Rajah is a paragon of those values and, like me, usually plays bad decks. At Lords Haüs, we diverted from our usual modus operandi for a shot at the Golden Demon. Speaking of shots, Mullen poured some tall Malorts before the first game began. As we clinked classes, I toasted “to whatever happens,” and we drew our opening sevens. Raj played Aaron West’s two-time OSPB-winning Shahrazad deck, Storytime - a brutally efficient pile of evasive creatures and burn. I lined up my Pixies and Sprites against Order of Leitbur and Serendib Efreets. The ever-voracious Atog was my crutch here. In familiar fashion, I lost game one when Raj vaulted us into a subgame while he was dead on board and with me at seven life. I blinked, returned to the Prime Game at three, and Raj showed me a Bolt. I boarded in Meekstones and Mazes of Ith to combat Dibs. Golden ambrosia filled another shot glass, and the events of Game 2 (and the subgames contained therein) were reduced to a pleasant, victorious haze. I’m sure I played each of them perfectly, and that the cards I boarded in were impactful. When I saw my game three opening hand of Land, Mox, Vise, Vise, Twister, Bolt, and Maze, I felt as if I’d been chosen by some astral power to win this tournament. Raj cast a baleful Shahrazad that put him on nine lives before I Twistered. He untapped and cast another Shahrazad. In a gesture that was equal parts fatigue and braggadocio, I immediately conceded that game. Raj played a Lotus, then cast Time Walk. The room gasped… then I showed him a pair of Bolts and the tournament ended. With the Golden Demon in-hand, I was a celebrity for one night. My thanks go out to the sportsmanship and generosity of my fellow Lords and guests; you really make a guy feel special and I left Lords Haüs with the desire to let someone else share in that feeling, too.
Each participant brought a gift to be drafted, ranging from power tools to vinyl records to a mysterious box, handmade by the Shaman himself, with contents that could only be fathomed. I took a Milwaukee power drill, an obvious no-brainer, and retired early as gaming and revelry continued into the wee hours.
By the time this article will be released, the word on Lord’s Haüs will already have gotten out, so I don’t want to repeat myself too much here. Despite that, another thanks to Bob Agra is due, and I’d thank him every day if it meant I could do this all over next year. To my fellow Old Schoolers: keep thinking of ways to be good to each other. The glory I won at Lords Haüs was given to me by my friends, not earned by skill at some card game.
It’s hard for us to know our effect on other people’s lives, for better or worse. A kind gesture may not be reciprocated, but internalized, and careless words may hurt more than we realize. Sometimes friendship has a day-to-day banality. We joke, complain about our losses, bad beats, opponent’s lucky draws. This game, in all its facets and layers, can divert us from being as good to each other as we should be. Our hobby is a rare intersection between childlike wonder and adult responsibility. Who doesn’t want to return to those lazy hours of summer camp, when we first laid eyes on angels, dragons, and djinns? We’re older now, and have our adult principles. We’re not in the Garden of Eden anymore, but there are moments, brief as they may be, when we can recapture its spirit.
See you soon, Carter
(Special thanks to all the Lords & Co. that contributed photos for this report.)