Welcome to this week's installment of my old-man war stories of my first game store, Wizard's Tower Gaming Center in 1998. This month, we saw smashes, crashes, Strokes, and chokes!
The month opened with a horrific car accident right outside the store on Main street. And when I say right outside, I mean within viewing angle of our windows! A small hatchback smashed into a light pole in the middle of the street, killing the driver and bloodying up the passenger. We all heard the sound and it was like a bomb had gone off; it's something I won't ever forget. I am a little proud in retrospect that gameplay stopped and the handful of people in the store all raced outside to render aid. The most we could really do was call 9-1-1 to summon first responders and wave traffic around the shrapnel and debris, so we did. Me, personally? Completely terrified. Seeing a man die essentially before my eyes had me on an adrenaline discharge almost on the level of shock. Closing time couldn't come soon enough.
Automobiles weren't the only things that crashed at Wizard's Tower that month. I had my first vendor experience with a Magic: the Gathering Standard rotation, which was then called Type II. Players at the time were nowhere near the level of "MTG Finance" that exists today with rampant speculation and binder-grinder backpack and garage dealers on every street, and so there was no mass dumping of Mirage-block staples as Urza's Saga released, the way you see it today. What we did see was a more authentic market mechanism, a pronounced slackening of demand. Rath Cycle staples slowed somewhat but still sold, while the Weatherlight crew's adventures in Jamuraa were no longer of interest. My daily grosses, which had approached respectability since late in the previous month, ground down to subsistence level.
I had no choice at that point but to arrange for one of the key game-store-owner leveraging assets: a Wife With a Good Job (WWGJ). I showed my ex-wife the math, she understood that a rent payment was a rent payment both at the store and at our condo, and she departed my "employ" to take up a call-center position with the Southern Directory Yellow Pages. She held that job until shortly before we divorced in early 2001. It didn't pay a lot, but we didn't need a lot. We had no children (thankfully) and few bills.
But wait, you'd ask, what about new singles? Yeah, as it turns out, there were only a few, and once those sold through, that was it. It turns out they were Stroke of Genius, Tolarian Academy, and Time Spiral. A few other cards were relevant to that deck -- rares Mox Diamond and Mind Over Matter, for example, but those were already circulating, and uncommons like Windfall weren't as hard to lay hands on. A new deck had emerged: Tolarian Academy Blue. The deck reliably won on turn 2 and sometimes won on the first turn. The only disruption that really mattered against it was Wasteland and sometimes Lobotomy, and usually by the time you used either, you had already lost.
But couldn't you Counterspell something and stop me? It didn't matter. Let's give you first turn and you say Island, go. Maybe you even play your Mox Diamond, doesn't matter. I play three zero-drop artifacts and an Academy. Due to the Legend rule of the time, you couldn't play your Academy once mine was out. I use the Academy mana and perhaps Mox Diamond mana to play a Mana Vault and then Windfall. If you counter any of that, I'm home free turn two, so you don't. Windfall resolves, you dump your hand, I am already at zero or one card so I reload. Turn two, you say Island, go, and you have a Counterspell ready. I play an Island and I have seven or eight blue and three or four colorless available. I play Turnabout, tapping both lands and the Mana Vault, to untap my lands. If you counter, I just use the other mana to Time Spiral and untap my lands and play Mind Over Matter and go off. If you don't counter, I play Mind Over Matter. If you don't counter the MoMa, I wait until your turn, tap you out, and go off unimpeded on my next turn, or if my hand supports it, I just go off right then and there. If you do counter the MoMa, I can just Turnabout and go off or Windfall and reload or even Time Spiral depending on precisely what I still have left untapped. There's just nothing you can do even with perfect play if I get a remotely reasonable draw. And with duplication of effects, I didn't need specific cards as much as I just needed any two or three out of several cards that were all four-counts in the deck. The deck was absurdly dangerous.
I did some Google-fu but couldn't find my original posts from the era on rec.games.magic.strategy, but the big breakthrough that made the deck silly came in playtesting with Ray Powers, where we discovered that cards such as Meditate and Dream Halls were irrelevant and the deck was far more powerful when you stacked it to accomplish the Academy combo and nothing else. I posted the "Bahr-Powers Academy Build" and by the time our Standard Pro-Tour Qualifier came through town late in the month, that's all many people played. I think there was some parallel evolution, obviously, but at the time I posted what ultimately turned out to be the definitive Academy deck until the December 1st bannings, nobody else had nailed that listing yet.
What was good for me as a reasonably competitive player at the time was bad for me as a businessman! Nobody cared about anything else, even cards that would be monstrously expensive years later, like Gaea's Cradle and Yawgmoth's Will. I was hawking other cards from the new set like some poor bastard trying to sell hot soup in July. I made enough money from people playing in booster drafts to pay all the bills in October, but otherwise it was treading water and not really developing the store or gaining any ground.
I attended the Qualifier myself and stood in contention for the top 8, only to choke with a colossal blunder in a game against Royal Champion (his real name). Firing off my combination in Game 3, I forgot that I had exiled some cards to some effect and miscounted the Stroke of Genius to draw up, decking myself in a game that Royal had no other way to win. He went to the top 8 and for all I recall might have qualified. I went home with an emptiness inside that only beer could fill. I do miss beer sometimes now that I'm a non-drinker. It didn't solve problems, but it sure did make you feel happy while postponing them.
We held a Halloween party and 30 or so people came. I even had tee-shirts printed up for the occasion. Other than having a great revenue day and a good time, the event has left a surprisingly minimal impression on my memory of the Wizard's Tower era. Perhaps knowing in retrospect that the end was nigh has blackened my recollection of the day.
On November 1, 1998, I made my last timely rent payment to the Paradise Palms Plaza. Dunt dunt dunnnnnnnn....
Whew! Well then, on that whimsical note, join us next week when I recount my attempt to be worldly and wise, when I make some durability discoveries, and when I fiddle whilst a Tower burns!