When you get older and look back at everything that has happened in your life, there's this need to connect the dots, to find the reasons why things went the way they did and not any other way. It's amazing to realize that every decision you made, every person you met, and every path you took lead you to the very place you're at right now.
Looking back is a good way to understand where we come from and where we're going. Even though my journey isn't over, I've reached a point where I can say: "I achieved the first set of goals I wanted to achieve, and I'm ready to move on to part two". That's why I'm ready to look back, tell my story and connect the dots.
I was 5 years old on May 1st 1987 when something happened that would determine most of what would come next in my life, including playing Magic. I had been sick with extreme stomach pain for two weeks. I was diagnosed with a ketosis and told that I would feel all better after a healthy dose of lollipops and rest. I'm not sure that's a good treatment for anything, but I wasn't in a position to check the facts. I sucked on lollipops for a few days, and my state unsurprisingly didn't improve. It actually worsened significantly. My days were spent groaning in pain on the couch, unable to move, eat or sleep. On that night, May 1st, my dad had guests over from Nice. His cousin Yves and girlfriend Régine were to have dinner with us, or rather with my parents, as I was condemned to a lollipop dinner while agonizing on the couch in the meantime.
Régine was a nurse in a surgery department at the time and she was troubled by my small body writhing in pain. For a few long hours she tried to convince my parents to take me to the hospital, her knowledge and instincts telling her that something was terribly wrong. All the while, my parents insisted that it could wait a few days, or at very least until morning. After what seemed like an entire night, Régine's stubbornness paid off, and my mom finally carried my fragile body into the car...
I woke up totally groggy from the anaesthesia, in a room I'd never been in before. As my vision came into clearer focus, I realized I was in a hospital room. I had had emergency surgery. In my state I could barely make out what the nurse was telling my mother but I could sense the urgency. I would only learn much later in my life what the nurse had said: "…we removed litres of pus from his belly. He wouldn't have made it through the night without surgery."
For the first years of my school life, I would always have an excuse for being a fragile little boy. I would always bring a letter to class to skip sports, because, you know, I almost died. Teachers felt compassionate and paid extra attention to me, and in return, I didn't want to disappoint them. I worked hard at school to be the boy with the best grades (couldn't compete with the girls though). I wanted to be good at something. Other kids were showing what they could do on the soccer pitch: kicking a ball further, running faster, or scoring the most goals. Since I was never allowed to join in the fun, I had convinced myself that I was terrible at sports and would spend recess time inside playing chess.
While I was probably the best chess player in my school, I never took it to the next level. I never competed in any tournament outside of school, I never read any strategy book, I was just happy to be the best among the people I knew.
Things started to change when I was introduced to Magic.
I was also a total video game nerd, quite normal for a "playing-inside kid." Back in the 90's, there were places where you could sit down and pay to play console and computer games from ten minutes to two hours. I hung out with a few friends, days on end, at one such place, called Liberty Games. The most popular games there were Doom on PC and fighting games on Neo Geo. There were also tables where people would play board and card games.
I was about 12 years old when my friend Mehdi told me he was going into town to buy "deck cards" so he could play "decks" at the Liberty Games. I had no idea what he was talking about and I certainly had no idea that this game would become one of the most influential parts of my life. I also had no idea that it was actually called Magic: the Gathering, and not "decks" at all. But I was intrigued and I followed.
Barely teenagers, we were "the kids" at Liberty Games and were always looking for ways to be accepted by the young adult crowd that would usually hang out there – maybe this could be it! Mehdi showed me the game and we started playing at home with Adrien, the other "kid." We barely spoke any English and made up our own rules. There was no internet and neither of us would even consider asking "les grands" how it worked just yet.
The noticeable rules were that we couldn't play direct damage spells to the face, too strong (huh? Okay). You took one when you forgot to untap a land during your untap step. The combat step was kind of a mess, as we weren't sure how damage worked and how creatures healed, and I remember that we tracked the damage creatures had taken every turn on paper, and gave them one toughness back every turn.
We had NO IDEA how Power Sink worked, and we had a million of them, as we were playing with Revised cards, mostly commons, as our budget was extremely limited. It was nowhere close to how the game was supposed to be played, but we were having fun.
After a couple of weeks of making it up as we went, I finally built up the courage to go to Liberty Games and ask "un grand" to explain the rules to me, for real.
I was mesmerized listening to his words as he explained the intricacies of the game. The rules finally made sense! I got hooked that day.
When I recall the two years that followed, between 1994 and April 1996, it feels like it lasted an eternity. The first tournaments were organized (not DCI sanctioned yet), but we had no shot at winning. You can't really beat Royal Assassins with Hill Giants. We were outclassed, not by the players, but by their cards. A bit how I feel now when I play Hearthstone.
Over time, I managed to collect the "good cards" and build more serious decks. I spent ages saving every cent of my pocket money and eventually had enough. A guy came to my doorstep, and after some persuasive negotiation and as much shady deal-making as a 13-year old can handle, I handed him all the money I had: 300 francs (about 45€ now). In exchange I got a bunch of dual lands (about 20) a Time Walk, and a Timetwister. I only got my busted Black Lotus for 100 francs (15€) a year later. I had bought it from a guy who was carrying his deck in his back pocket the whole time. Sleeves only came out a year or two later.
I spent hours playing at Liberty Games, getting better every day and earning respect from "les grands," because I could compete on the same level as them at a game. Magic was just a game, but it was something I wanted to be good at. The best at. I had no other incentive than just beating "les grands," but I adapted quickly. I started to really understand how the game worked. I could understand what made a player good and a player bad. I had spent the last couple of years growing up with the game and I could start seeing most mistakes players made.
Now that I think of it, it's a bit like that scene from the Matrix, when Neo realizes his abilities and sees through the codes. Not that I pretend I had godlike abilities and played perfectly, but I was definitely ready to show what I could do.
On April 21st 1996, the first DCI-sanctioned tournament was held in Toulouse. It was the first time someone from outside, a Wizards of the Coast official, would come to organize a tournament for us. It was also one of the first Standard events held in France. I almost overflowed with excitement as my mom drove me to "la Bonne Franquette" (which translates as "Pot Luck"), a typical regional restaurant, set up to receive between 60 and 70 Magic-card aficionados.
I met with Emmanuel Beltrando, the French DCI Manager for the first time. By the way he was working I could sense that he didn't expect much of us. He was there to do his job, not to see great Magic. He personally knew Bertrand Lestrée and Marc Hernandez, two of the French Legends that no one here had ever met. I had only heard these names, but they were inspiring. They had played with the best and had their names listed with the likes of Hammer and Mark Justice. What did Emmanuel expect from a city in Province?
In France, anything that's not Paris is Province. It's like the countryside, where people work on the fields and get their water from the wells. There would most likely be some cute decks, but definitely not any good Magic players hungry to become world champ.
I registered for the tournament and Emmanuel handed me my DCI number for the first time. I would use it often over the next 20 years. This number would grow into part of my identity, so much so that during my time at university I would often recite it when asked for my student number, confusing the two about half the time.
I was pumped to play in a tournament with so many unfamiliar faces. These faces were there to qualify for French Nationals just like I was. I only knew a handful of people, and honestly, I didn't think much of the crowd either. I was extremely confident in my skills and my deck. I submitted a red/green deck with Tinder Wall and Mana Vault to enable early Ernham Djinn and Orgg. These guys were no laughing matter.
Round one was about to start, I walked through the aisles to find my score card. Pairings were operated manually, every player had his own score card that he would fill with the score of his match and hand to the score keeper, who would then pile and sort them by number of points. He would give a good shuffle and lay them down on the tables to pair the next round.
I played every game like my life depended on it. Every win was a step closer to the qualification to French Nationals, every loss a huge step back. Grueling step by grueling step, I moved further away from Top 8 contention and my dream of being 1996 regional champ, a title that I have never won.
I couldn't make it. I was distraught.
Emmanuel announced the final standings and my heart sank every time I heard a name that wasn't mine. I knew I would not be called but I wanted to see how happy these people were. It made me even more determined to be in their position… I would get my revenge on them some day. After calling the eight players, to my surprise, Emmanuel added: "and the junior slot for Nationals goes to Michel Dupain*."
*Not his real name.
I was dazed. There was a slot for juniors? What did that even mean? I went to see the organizer to ask for clarification. I learned that there was indeed a slot for the best player under 16 years. At 14 I met the criteria and knew I should have a shot at this title. Stubborn and competitive me quickly investigated and found out that not only was I the correct age, but Michel and I were also tied. We had the same score! With a glimmer of hope I approached Emmanuel and showed him the results of my investigation.
"Oh well, I guess you guys will have to play a tiebreaker game." That's exactly what I wanted to hear! After much emotional turmoil, I was given another shot at qualifying and I would not let it slip through my fingers this time. Michel suddenly had to defend what he thought was a given. I felt for him… for about a second. Then my competitive nature kicked back in. I forgot all the soul-crushing losses of the day and mentally prepared myself to play in the first high-stake game I would ever play.
Sitting across from my opponent I could feel that this was it, this was my turn to shine. I won a very one-sided match, beating white-weenie with the help of card that would win me that matchup a hundred times over: Anarchy.
I knew I hadn't won the tournament, I wasn't the champion, I wasn't even "un grand" yet; but I didn't care, I was one step closer to being the best… I was qualified for Nationals!