‘Playing the Playtester’ by Brother Scott

20 September 2020

Even having started playing Magic in 1998, now some 22 years ago, sometimes I still find myself playing against someone who’s been playing longer than me.  Today I played against someone who’s been playing Magic longer than almost everyone.  In fact, he’s been playing it since before the game was even published.

The setting

The Alpha 40 League, organised by the Northern Paladins group in the US, is a monthly online tournament of around 50-60 people where only original Alpha cards can be used, and with an innovative (if complex) B&R list that curbs the potential insanity of Alpha-only Magic by restricting many of the most powerful cards to 1 copy, 3 copies, or to limit brokenness (for example, your deck can have only one “fast mana” card such as a Mox or Sol Ring).  This helps recreate something akin to Magic as it was played in 1993, when few players could have found enough cards on sale to put together anything like a perfectly-tuned deck.

In the September 2020 Alpha 40 League I was fortunate enough to be drawn in the group stages against Joel Mick, an American player who was the June 2020 Alpha 40 League champion…but is better known as one of Richard Garfield’s original group of playtesters for Magic: The Gathering.  

The match

My Blue/Red deck took on Joel’s mono black.  Unfortunately, Joel’s Sinkhole had kept me stuck on 1 land in Game 1, allowing him to win with a Black Knight (plus 2 Unholy Strength!) and Juggernaut despite my early double Black Vise having got him to 10.

This photo shows us in Game 2, this time Joel with the double Vise, but me about to Shatter the Copper Tablet and go on to win the game with my Air Elemental (although I had to clear the path for him by Control Magic-ing a 4/3 Hypnotic Specter who had Unholy Strength).

But in Game 3 Sinkhole pegged me back again – this time stuck on two lands long enough for his two Hypnotic Specters to win the game, as I never quite had the three mana needed to destroy them with the two Fireballs in my hand.  Joel took the match 2-1.

The aftermath

Despite the result it was a fun match against a nice opponent – and we followed it with two equally fun practice games afterwards, which we shared 1-1, and which included his 10/6 Black Knight being chump blocked by my Jade Statue.  Really though the main highlight for me was the just to be able to play Alpha cards against an original Alpha Playtester!  As we chatted Joel couldn’t recall exactly which of his playtesting ideas made it into Alpha (he remembered that the early drafts of the Alpha set didn’t have dual lands, but wasn’t sure exactly whose input got them added) but he did note that the couple of years of Alpha playtest games that they played felt very similar to today’s Alpha 40 League games, given the League restrictions.  I guess this is as close as I will come to feeling what it was like play Magic: The Gathering in 1992.

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