It's May 25th, 2000. I'm a fifth-grader in social studies class. Like most fifth-graders in social studies class, I'm bored out of my mind. My eyes wander, eventually falling on my desk neighbor, Eli. He has something in his hand under his desk. He looks down at it for precisely a second, writes something on a piece of paper, looks down under his desk again for precisely one second, writes something on a piece of paper. On and on it goes. I had assumed he was paying attention to the lecture.
I ask him what he's doing. He shushes me. As a kid who had little concern about being shushed or getting in trouble by the teacher, I ask again. Eli rolls his eyes, sighs, and brings a stack of sleeved Magic cards above the desk and starts recording them. 4x Soltari Priest. 3x Soltari Monk. 3x Paladin en-Vec.
"What are these?" I ask.
"These are Magic cards," says Eli without looking up. 4x Warrior en-Kor. 4x Nomads en-Kor.
"Are they like Pokemon cards?"
"God, no," says Eli in disgust. "Pokemon is for little kids." 4x Empyrial Armor. 2x Cataclysm.
I am immediately intrigued and I pick up a Paladin en-Vec without asking and examine it. The art depicts an ornately-dressed guy posing in the middle of a forest with a staff and shield. He is wearing 3D glasses. I am skeptical of Eli's implication that Magic is not for little kids, but I am also hopelessly enchanted by these cards, hook, line, and sinker. Medieval-tinged Tolkien-derivative fantasy never appealed to me, but something about the stark, grey depictions of Rath and its heroes standing bright and defiant against the flowstone's dull earth tones sucked me right in. Their hold on me is so immediate and inextricable that even the bizarre art on the Land Tax Eli flips over next can't snap me out of it. I need to get my hands on these cards.
May 28th, 2000. I bring everything Pokemon I own—cards, video games, and everything else—down to my local game store, Area 51. It will become my Stomping Grounds for the next seven years. I walk in and am bombarded by the smell of incense, which I incorrectly assume is marijuana. There are teenagers at the tables playing—it's the Sunday flight of the Prophecy prerelease. To a ten-year old, it's all very intimidating. I trade in everything Pokemon I own for a Starter '99 two-player starter set and a couple packs of Starter 2000 because I am still a beginner and the packaging is clearly designated as a STARTER-LEVEL PRODUCT. The owner of Area 51, Fran, tries to convince me to get Nemesis or 6th Edition boosters, but I stand my ground and demand the Starter 2000 booster packs.
July 2000. In the last few months I've spent all my allowance on Magic cards and made friends with a bunch of kids at my middle school I wouldn't have normally talked to. One of them, Kyle, has a seemingly natural aptitude for Magic, and crushes me every time we play. He has won a couple of local Sunday tournaments against the teenagers of Area 51. I've never played in a real-life tournament before, but Kyle and I are the same age, which is enough to convince me that if he can do it, so can I.
Freshly dropped off by my mom, I waltz in to Area 51 on a Sunday and don't recognize anyone else there but Fran, who sold me the Starter 1999 kit. I clumsily get my DCI number and sign up for the tournament—in hindsight, this is likely my first time navigating a retail situation by myself. I'm confident in my deck; Kyle let me practice against him and assured me that my deck would do well against the field at Area 51.
In my first match, I'm paired against a 12-year old and I'm feeling confident. He has to walk me through all the the stuff that happens at the beginning of a game of Magic. We roll a die to see who gets to choose play or draw. He stops me from drawing my opening hand because he has to cut my deck. I have no clue what this means. He explains the best he can. He prompts me to cut his deck. Everything's moving really fast. I play my first land: a gold-bordered Plains from Brian Hacker's '98 World Championship deck. Immediately, my opponent calls Fran over, claiming that my deck is illegal. I have no idea what's happening.
Fran rifles through my deck, brow slightly furrowed. He gets down to my eye level and tells me my deck is, in fact, illegal—that the gold-bordered cards I'd used to practice against Kyle and all my other friends aren't allowed in tournament play, and by the way, neither are cards from Starter. Realization dawns on me and I look up at him—he gives me a sheepish grimace that clearly says I tried to tell you, man.
I happen to have another deck on me—a slightly tweaked version of the Mercenary pre-constructed deck that accompanied the release of Nemesis. At this point I'm totally embarrassed and just want to go home, but the $5 that represented 100% of my net worth went towards playing in this tournament and my mom dropped me off so I'm more or less stuck here.
My opponent moves around a lot of cards very quickly and I have no idea what's going on until I'm dead. At the start of the game, I ask lots of questions, but my opponent's demeanor suggests that my questions are stupid and tedious, so eventually I stop asking about anything and just nod along, embracing my inevitable fate. It's a Replenish deck. My opponent churns through his deck with Attunement, locking down my creatures with the occasional Parallax Wave but not really making any inroads towards winning the game. I take a glance over at my opponent's graveyard and see that it's about eight times bigger than his library and take heart; I recall reading that if your opponent decks, you win the game.
Of course, my opponent calmly casts Replenish and kills me via Opalescence and a bunch of enchantments.
After the game, I numbly look through my deck. Spiteful Bully. Spineless Thug. Cateran Brute. Why didn't they save me? It's like my opponent and I weren't even playing the same game.
The next round, I'm paired against a teenager. He casts Howling Mines and counters every spell I cast. I succumb to Millstone in both games. Again, my mercenary deck—not as trusty as the white deck full of gold-bordered cards but plenty capable of beating up on my classmates—failed to show up. I hold the deck in my hands.
"Why the hell did I even buy this?"
After a few more hours of getting dunked on, I go home, call my friend Jake, and tell him the injustice of my day. That night, we stick all my gold-bordered and starter cards in a fan.
After such an inauspicious start to a hobby I'd enjoy for the next 18 years, I do not find my prolonged fascination with pre-constructed decks ironic. On the contrary, I have a collection of gold-bordered Worlds decks at my desk at work, and Eli and I often get together to battle pre-constructed decks he kept over the years, spanning 10 years of Magic's history. The collection is affectionately dubbed "the shoebox," because all the decks are in a shoebox.
With few exceptions, players with tournament aspiration had no reason to ever buy a pre-constructed deck—they were strictly a "kitchen table" product. They represented one of many, many landmines new players had to navigate and blow themselves up on in the journey to "enfranchised player." Efforts to make pre-constructed decks viable at even the lowliest levels of competition—the weekly Standard tournament at the LGS—experienced varying degrees of failure.
Certainly Standard gameplay isn't the same as it was in 2000. Given 18 years to develop its own design philosophy and goals, It's safe to say that Standard plays like a logical progression from the style of Magic that new players are encouraged to learn on. Modern and all the other formats don't, but that's fine because they don't have to. Standard fills that role.
The Challenger decks piqued my interest immediately for a couple reasons. On paper, the four decks look great. They're decks chock-full of actual value with clear directions to take them in as you build up your collection. They are an indicator that you should to accrue cards with intent instead of shredding packs like they're scratch-off lottery tickets. Most importantly, they give new players a chance at not only winning a game at FNM, but getting prizes. Needless to say, I would've killed for a product like this when I was 10.
Challenger decks are also a big deal for all the Frans at all the Area 51s across the world too. Having to tell your customers that Starter cards aren't legal and pre-constructed decks are worthless is a terrible spot to be put in. I can only imagine his frustration—ostensibly, a game producer doesn't want to put their vendors in a position where being honest about their product and praising it are mutually exclusive.
I was driven to give these decks a spin myself. I wanted to determine two things: are they worth buying, and how can they be improved?
The first video in the playlist is a 30 Second Deck Tech, but the rest are gameplay videos I recorded with the Hazoret Aggro Challenger deck. It was pretty sweet. As for how you should change the deck, well, Mono-Red Aggro is a thing. The other Challenger Decks will have more than one direction to go in, but this one's the most straightforward of the bunch. Just find a Mono-Red Aggro list you like and work towards it. Pro Tip: Get more of the mythic rares that come with the deck. They're good!
These decks aren't meant to be the keys to the kingdom, although they are playable out of the box. They are a tool to prevent new players excited about Magic from having to start completely from scratch. They are a reversal of course from putting landmines in players' paths towards providing ways for them to meaningfully interact with the game and their LGS.