June 02, 2015

Magic and Me

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Just a tad over 25 years ago on March 29th, 1990, at 7:47 PM, there was a baby boy born into this world in the suburbs of Seattle, Washington. After months of prior deliberation…upon delivery, his mother asked for "Gavin" to be written on his birth certificate, after a former member of his dad's rock and roll band.

"Gavin Verhey," his mom would say. "It has a nice ring to it."

And that's where my story begins.

Chapter 1—The Boys who Lived

My father was an electrician, as well as being smart, clever, and an incredible businessman to boot. In his spare time, he played gigs in a rock n' roll cover band called the Kloset Rockers.

As he told me once, "You know it's cool because it's spelled with a K." His great sense of dad humor I might have picked up on a little too early.

My mother was a combination of military, nurse, and teacher all in one. Strong, dependable, and with a knack for teaching you anything with a smile, no matter how many times you got it wrong, she could take anybody under one wing while fighting back any enemies with the other.

They had their differences. My dad loved meat, my mom was a vegetarian. My mom liked Star Trek; my dad preferred Star Wars.

But they put all of these differences aside for this Play-Doh eating child:

However, I wasn't alone. I had two partners in crime. The first was my older sister, Leslie.

Leslie and I got along well. However, after a few years, the person I probably spent the most time around was my younger brother Tanner.

After a short stint in public school, my mom decided to homeschool my brother and me, making us true partners on just about everything.

So there we were. One fairly happily family. We spent our days learning and our evenings playing.

But there is still one crucial element missing. There's something that I consider nearly as much a part of the family as any one person. Something that brought us together, took us through ups and downs, and, to each of us in our own way, became a permanent fixture of our family.

That element? Magic.

You see, growing up I played a lot of sports.

I was a huge fan of basketball… At least, until the Seattle Supersonics left:

Golf. Tanner and I tried…but it wasn't ever really our favorite.

Our family had a huge affinity for baseball. Growing up, for a very long time, my dream was to play professional baseball. My dad split season tickets for the Seattle Mariners, and I played it for years on local teams:

But then a sequence of events would change everything and steer my course away from aiming to play in the Major Leagues.


One summer, when I was 8 or 9, I went to computer camp. Being homeschooled, my mom knew it was crucial to get me out interacting with other kids whenever possible, and also to learn about topics she wasn't familiar with. And computer camp taught me some important things about coding in DOS…and mostly about a wide variety of different computer games I could play.

Every lunch break, we would have an hour to play on the computers. We'd schedule real-time-strategy game tournaments, race cars, and blow up mechs together. It was one of my first forays into computer gaming.

But the most memorable part came during when one day when I took a wrong turn. I went to go to the computer lab, but accidentally ended up passing by the break room. The staff—college students—were huddled around a table, playing not on a computer like everybody else, but on the table. With cards!

I remember hearing something about a Jackal Pup in passing. I looked over, tiptoeing up to reach my nose over the table, and peered onto the surface.

The card back read, "Magic: The Gathering."

"Hey, what are you doing here? We're on break—the computer lab is that way!" said one of the kids. I scurried off, afraid to interrupt their game.

I saw almost nothing of the game…and yet it captured my imagination.

And that's one of the most incredible things about Magic, isn't it? How many of you, with little knowledge about what the game actually was, just saw a glimpse and thirsted for more? Once you have that taste, it quickly becomes impossible to quench your yearning to discover more and more.

That night, on my computer at home, I connected to AOL and used whatever search engine existed at the time—perhaps Ask Jeeves or something—and looked up everything I could on this game. There wasn't much that I could find easily. But I found a website with all of the different card types.

I remember memorizing them, and "quizzing" my brother—who had read nothing about the game—about it just so I would have someone to talk with about the game. I daydreamed about it and the mystical card types like "artifact" and "creature" for days and weeks. But there was one problem: I didn't think my mom would let me play. I was worried she would think it was too adult. It was a 13+ game, after all.

So I didn't ask. And, slowly but surely, it moved into the back of my mind.

Until a couple years later.

It was January 25, 2001. I know the date exactly. The day that my life changed forever.

We were in a Wizards of the Coast retail store—back when those existed—and my mom started talking to the wonderful woman behind the counter. Somehow, she sold her on Magic.

"Is this something you think you'd play, Gavin?"

I couldn't nod fast enough.

And so it began.

I watched the starter CD-ROM and learned how to play, then taught my brother. Despite just having starter decks, we'd play for hours. We'd take our cards everywhere in the house. We'd talk rudimentary strategy and rules.

Every card we owned was precious. As far as we were concerned, that was the only one in the world that existed, and trading for it between us meant a gigantic change in our own "metagames." I remember a three-day long discussion about trading a Tinder Farm for an Irrigation Ditch as I anguished weighing the pros and cons in my head. My first rare was Thornscape Master, which I still keep in a toploader in my closet to this day.

I wanted every Magic thing I could get my hands on.

Very few games we played stuck like this did. While we would quickly shelf many games, Magic we kept on playing for weeks and weeks. It gave me and Tanner something to do while we were passing a bit of time before dinner, or our parents were talking, or we had a few minutes before bed, or any number of things. It was infectious: we wanted to share it with all of our friends, and even get our parents to play.

After all, I had to get my friends playing if my birthday parties for the next three years were going to be Magic themed.

There's one moment I'll never forget. After weeks and weeks of being Magic-crazed, my dad popped his head in the doorway to room my brother and I shared. "You're still playing that game?!?" he asked incredulously.

My brother and I nodded.

"Wow. What is that game ever going to do for you guys? Shouldn't you be moving on to doing other things?"

He walked out of the door. In a split second, as a thought entered my head, I yelled back "I'm going to make a lot of money at this someday."

I heard a laugh as he walked away. "Uh-huh. Okay."

If there's one thing I've learned about young boys, it's this: never challenge them to do something if you don't want them to try.

And so the wheels were in motion.

Chapter 2—The Journey Begins

"I want to be a Magic designer when I grow up."

That's what I told my parents when I was eleven years old. It was settled. I had made up my mind. As far as I was concerned, every other job was not going to be good enough.

Seeing our excitement over the game, our parents had been taking us to a local card shop in Edmonds, Washington, where we lived. After playing there for a few weeks, I learned that there were Magic designers. People who made Magic cards. That was something I was already doing! I was already dreaming up my own Magic cards. Surely, I could be a designer!

And at this local shop, I had heard about something called a "Prerelease." A place where I could play with the new cards. But more importantly, where actual employees from Wizards of the Coast would be! That I could talk to! Surely, they would offer me a job as soon as I asked for one.

I convinced my parents to let me go to the Odyssey Prerelease. And after getting crushed in the main event, I went over to talk to the man spellslinging at the event: Randy Buehler, the then-director of R&D.

"How can I get a job designing Magic," I asked.

Randy looked at me squarely, taking me as seriously as he would anybody else. "Well, you need two things," he began. "The first is a college degree."

And my little heart just sank. I mean, when was I ever going to get one of those? That was years and years from now! I was crushed.

But Randy continued. "The second is that you need to be someone good enough at Magic that we'll want to hire you to help make our game. You know, like a professional player."

A brief spark of hope reignited in my belly. I don't know about this whole college degree thing…but how hard could it be to become a professional Magic player?

So, just like my job choice, it was settled like that. I was going to play professional Magic until one day I was good enough to get hired as a Magic designer.

I began to look up tournaments to play in, devouring everything on the tournament scene I could. There was so much more than just Friday Night Magic, it turned out! There was a whole professional scene!

And hey, there was even a tournament just for me: the Junior Super Series (or JSS for short), where players under 16 competed for college scholarships. It had a very similar road to the Pro Tour: if you made the finals of a qualifier event, you'd win some scholarship money and then go play in the yearly championships.

And that was something my parents could get behind.

Chapter 3—A Tale of Two Tournaments

Being homeschooled, my brother and I were in a unique situation—able to travel more than most. Especially unique was that we lived half of the year in Washington, and half of the year in Phoenix, Arizona. My parents hated the cold and still loved baseball, so every winter we'd head on down to warm up and watch Spring Training for baseball.

Magic is really the glue that kept my brother and me with groups of friends no matter where we were. Instead of looking at it as leaving our friends for six months, we knew we would always have a game store to play at no matter where we went and that they would always welcome us.

It was one of these such sojourns in Phoenix where a Verhey first won a qualifier.

But it wasn't me.

My brother took down a tournament in Tucson, Arizona, and all of a sudden we were headed to San Diego for the championships in a few months! I was happy for him, even though I was the one who needed to be winning things to get that job at Wizards.

So, come time for the championship, we packed into the car and road tripped. My brother and I, and my mom drove to San Diego, hitting theme parks on the way. It was like a dream trip.

But all the wonders of Disneyland failed to hold up to the moment I walked in the door to the room where US Nationals and the JSS Championship were being head.

That is a moment that's burned into my mind; a wave that surges back up whenever I think about it.

We were all blown away.

I had never seen so many people in one place playing the game I loved. This was a moment for all of us, when we all realized that Magic was bigger than just a card shop. It was bigger than life. Our worldviews all expanded that day. Around me, pros I had only heard of in coverage online were nearby.

It was incredible.

And so we played all weekend. I did a lot of looking on as Tanner regaled me with stories from the event.

My brother didn't do very well that weekend. I didn't manage to get in on the last minute qualifier. But as far as I was concerned, it was a success.

The next year, I resolved to win a JSS qualifier. I was nearly 14, and I needed to really speed up my pace if I was going to get that dream job of mine.

Chapter 4—Spellwriting, Spellcasting, and Spellteaming

Within the next year, I felt a raging motivation…and I began to hit the gas. It started with a JSS win, followed by a Regionals Top 8, and then taking Top 16 at the JSS Championship, netting me a couple thousand in scholarship prizes. I was finally getting up closer to where I wanted to be.

But I noticed a trend. There was a lot that goes on with Magic outside of just the game. And I wanted to be a part of it. I loved the culture and atmosphere around Magic. Some of the most intelligent, fun to be around people I had ever met all played this game. If I was going to be a professional, why couldn't I do these things too?

So, I did.

I became more and more active in forums, to the point where I was administrating some of the largest Magic forums on the internet. I started writing articles somewhat regularly. I got in on the Monday Night Magic podcast at episode #9 and stayed for nearly 300 episodes, becoming a regular voice in the Magic community. I followed the excellent Top8Magic podcast with Mike Flores and Brian David-Marshall and communicated with them, which led to Flores and BDM looping me in on a few decks and discussions—which was some of my initial taste of being on the "inside."

And, perhaps most importantly of all, I formed a team.

Now, you have to realize that this was a time before Facebook really took off. These days, communicating en masse with tons of Magic players in a controlled environment is easy. 10 years ago, it was a bit more tricky.

But using my forum know-how, I created a website and forum for Team Unknown Stars (TUS for short) and then invited a bunch of people. In retrospect, it had perhaps one of the worst, most pretentious names I could have chosen…but that aside, the team was a hotbed of future talent. I worked with players you might recognize like Ari Lax, Matej Zatlkai, Kyle Boggemes, Matt Nass, Christian Calcano, Chris Mascioli, and more…and that's just all off the top of top of my head. It really helped me build a global network of players

Through this, I began to know people all across the world. And before I knew it, winning JSS Qualifiers came with ease. The championships led to strong finishes and cash every time.

And then, before I knew it, thanks to a lot of help from my team and playtesting, I won a PTQ. And then another. And then another.

Though I wasn't quite breaking through on the Pro Tour yet, I was getting close to where I needed to be!

And, then before I knew it, an exciting opportunity came.

One day, I was in the shower, thinking through what I should try and do next. "I should try and write for StarCityGames if I can," I thought. "I'd love to be writing among those players."

I got out of the shower. Checked my email. And out of absolutely nowhere StarCityGames had sent me an offer to write for them! I was a bit shocked—but I quickly accepted.

All of the pieces were coming together. Now it was time to start making a move.


Chapter 5—A Plan Comes Together

Let's back up for a bit. Remember that whole college thing Randy told me I needed to do?

While all this was happening, I was putting those wheels into motion too.

I started college at 16, for a few reasons that seemed good—but certainly one of them was that I could try and start working for Wizards earlier.

Weeks passed. Articles went up. Tournaments passed. Classes happened. Many plane flights occurred. And before I knew it, this happened:

I had finally hit the endgame. I was playing in Pro Tours, writing articles for a major website, knew a ton of people around the world, and now I had just graduated college. StarCityGames had even picked me up to do commentary on their open circuit!

And then I did one more thing.

My friends and I had been talking forever about a nonrotating format between Standard and Legacy. Somewhere you could play with your cards that had rotated out of Standard but wouldn't see play in Legacy.

So, what did I do? Just like all the other times where I had tried to steer my own fate, I created it.

I called it Overextended, and it was basically a version of Modern before Modern existed, with a cutoff of at Invasion rather than Eighth Edition and Mirrodin. All of a sudden, Wizards announced Modern around the same time, and suddenly there was a lot of demand for this kind of thing.

Through the Overextended events I was running, it helped show there was a lot of excitement around the format. The upcoming Pro Tour changed to Modern from Extended. And I felt like I had contributed in some way to accomplishing something at an R&D level.

And then, a couple weeks after Innistrad came out, I was contacted by Magic R&D. I took the vapor ops test, and started working there shortly afterward.

All I could think on my first day: "I did it!"

Epilogue

I followed my dreams. I blazed my own path. I made it.

Today, I am a Game Designer in Magic R&D. I would certainly say my spark ignited. And I couldn't have gotten to where I am today with my mom, dad, brother, sister, and each and every person I met on my way here. The Magic community is incredible! Hopefully you find it the same way.

I hope this trip back in my life's TARDIS helped be an inspiration. May you find your own sparks to ignite.

I'll be back next week. Until then, may your Origin story continue to grow!

Gavin

@GavinVerhey

GavinInsight



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