Regionals in 1996 was the first real opportunity for us Toulousains to qualify for Nationals. Overall, only a handful of us, just nine, would make the trip to Paris and have a shot at the title.
At 14 years old, undertaking a trip to the capital without my parents was a mission on its own. It was the first of countless trips to come, where I would pack my bag with clothes for a couple of days, a deckbox full of cards, and a plane ticket in my pocket. Air France offered special fares for students, teenagers and those under 25 years old: 200 francs (about 30€) for a return ticket from Toulouse to Paris. Thanks to that, even with the costs of accommodation and food, I could afford it since I saved all the pocket money I was ever given, occasionally breaking the piggy bank only when I felt the need to purchase the latest Squaresoft game imported from the US for the Super Nintendo. (Final Fantasy III and Chrono Trigger are some of my all-time favorites, and to this day, their tunes still wake me up in the morning. I sometimes catch my wife whistling Frog's theme even though she never even played the game!)
The first few times I traveled out of town I was under the supervision of un grand, someone a bit older who would supposedly be able to guarantee my safe return home after the tournament. These guardians of mine were not always the most reliable people, and soon enough I would be better off on my own.
For Regionals I brought my trusty White-Green Erhnam-Geddon deck, which consisted of Land Tax, mana creatures, my favorite creature (and not a laughing matter at the time) of Erhnam Djinn and Armageddon. It was a dark time for Magic—one of many to come—called "Necrosummer". I only learned about that after the tournament was over. I had no idea what the good players were going to play, and I imagined them testing in remote places, putting together unimaginable strategies. Little did I know this was all available on the computer at www.magicdojo.com.
On that Saturday there were about 200 players gathered at Stade Charlety in south Paris. After registering I was told I was in Group B. It was the first time I would play in such a big tournament and I was interested to see how it would be run. It was about to start and a caller was announcing the matches, one by one. That guy had a pile of player match cards, on which each player would write down the score of their matches, and they would be sorted to allow manual pairings. He proceeded to read the name that appeared on the first card, place it on the table, read the name of the card right after that, and place it in front of the first one. That's it. That was a player's pairing. He would do that for 98 more players. A line of people eager to sit down to start playing eyed that caller, waiting for their names to be called.
After an impatient wait 100 hundred players were left uncalled, including me. That's right: These were only the pairings for Group A. My fellow Group B players and I had to wait for round 1 to finish for Group A first.
I knew then it was going to be a long tournament.
A Train to the Stars
By fall 1997 a lot had happened in my Magic life. That year started with a big disappointment: I failed to qualify for Nationals at Regionals while most of my buddies from Toulouse did. My main rival, Mathieu Poujade, won that tournament. I was jealous, envious and frustrated. I wanted to be the best, I had opened the way for others to do well, and now they were all qualified and I would sit out for the next big tournament.
Fortunately I had two more chances to qualify for Nationals. In 1997, every player who qualified for the Pro Tour was also qualified for Nationals, so I knew what I had left to do: I earned my ticket for both the Pro Tour and Nationals in Bordeaux in February of that year.
Being qualified for the Pro Tour was a big deal. I had been a trailblazer the previous year when I qualified for Nationals, and I was a trailblazer again making it to the Pro Tour. I was stoked and it definitely went to my head. When I walked into the store I wanted to make sure everyone knew I was the big deal. I mean, come on, who had played a Pro Tour before? That's right: No one. Humility was not something I cared too much about. I got what I wanted. I had been so envious and then I had had the chance to make everyone envious. Needless to say, few decided to help me test for the Pro Tour. "He thinks he's the best? Let's see how he does on his own".
Looking back, it was a good lesson. I was clueless when I sat down for Round 1 of Pro Tour Paris. I won—my first Pro Tour match—and I didn't even feel outclassed. However I knew that I was not running the best deck. Mono-Black Aggro in Mirage-Vision Block constructed wasn't exactly optimal, but that's all I had. On Sunday, I sat down to watch the Top 8 in the big round room of the Cirque d'Hiver, set up so the spectators would watch the action on a big screen. On another day people would sit in the seats to watch horses, clowns, jugglers and acrobats. Here I was just in awe watching the likes of Mike Long and Mark Justice battling for the big prize. How did Mike Long come up with that deck—Prosperity, Cadaverous Bloom, Natural Balance? How did he even think of that? More importantly, why didn't I think of that?
Later that year I lost in the semi-finals of Nationals, and qualified for my first Worlds. My showing in Seattle was decent, where I finished in the money in the individual competition and we beat the US in the last round of the Team Competition to end up in seventh place That was something I could be proud of, but it didn't quite have the snowball effect I expected: I wasn't qualified for anything anymore and had to grind everything all over again.
In the last round of Pro Tour Paris, I played against Manuel Bevand who would become my first mentor in Magic. When I spent the summer of '97 in Paris to prepare for Worlds, Manuel introduced me to Rochester Draft and we became good friends.
I bought my first PC in 1995. It was running Windows 95, and the main purpose for me when I bought that beast of a Pentium II was to run Warcraft 2 and Command and Conquer, as well as to get a bit more familiar with a keyboard. It was only two years later that magazines were really starting to advertise the Internet. I wondered for a long time what the AOL CD that was sold with the magazine actually gave you access to. It was free for a month, so I decided I might as well give it a try.
I bought myself a 56k modem, and it whistled to the tune of the connection: "Tidutidudim Trrrrrrrrrrrrr triiiiiiiiii trrrrrrr tididididiiiiiiiiii duuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuh". Its settings were never right, and it felt like a little miracle when it managed to connect.
I had two go-to things to do when I got online (or three if you count praying for the connection to work for long enough): Start Netscape to visit The Magic Dojo, and start mIRC to log on #mtg.
Manuel guided me through my first steps. He told me what I had to know to start working my way through this new world now open to me. But besides these two things there was not much for me to do there in the beginning.
Thanks to his knowledge of computers and his good English, Manuel had many contacts in the Magic world, not just in France. One night of October 1997, all excited that I had managed connect, I received an interesting email from him that would change my life forever:
"Hey Raph, some friends and I have formed an online Magic team and I thought you could be part of it. There are people from the US, Canada and Czech Republic, and we would be discussing decks and tech over email conversations. I told them I knew a kid that had potential and could be a good addition to the team. However, since you're not qualified for anything as of now you'll have to get back on the train quickly so you don't get kicked out of the team. What do you think?"
What do I think? "Holy moly, sure I'm in!" If I ever needed motivation, there it was. The people he was talking about were none other than Gary Wise, Zvi Mowshowitz, Jakub Slemr, Alan Comer and a few others that would become (or already were) world champions or Hall of Fame members. Except for Jakub that I had seen win Worlds, I didn't know any of the others.
I immediately started looking for the next PTQ around. It would happen two days later over in Dijon, 8 hours away from Toulouse by train. On the same day, I went to Armageddon, the local game store and our headquarters, to ask if anyone would go to Dijon with me. Not that I was lacking drive, but I would have preferred someone to go there with me. They all looked at me like I was from another planet. They wanted to play, but not that much.
They didn't want to go? So be it. I called the train station and asked for the train times. I had traveled to Paris, to the US, and to a few other places with un grand; I could definitely go to Dijon on my own. 15 years old is old enough to undertake such a journey, right?
My mom agreed to let me go, with the condition that I had to call her every time I could. That wasn't a big price to pay. So at 11pm, I boarded the night train to Saint-Etienne. It would only stop there at 5:30 and without any announcement, I had to be awake then so I could go down and board the next train to Dijon. Sleeping was hard as I didn't want to miss my stop, and people traveling with me were coughing, snoring, smelly and generally just annoying. At least they kept me from being too deeply asleep. I managed to get some rest, sleeping on my small plastic Casio watch set to wake me up for my stop, keeping it as close as possible to my ear so that I would be able to hear it above the sound of the moving train.
It worked, and at 9am, I reached my destination, Dijon here I was. It's amazing how motivation and excitement can keep you awake throughout the day, even though you barely had any sleep.
The format was 5th Edition-Visions Sealed deck with Top 8 in Rochester draft. There was some commotion at the start of the tournament as we were sitting waiting for our product. Nothing was happening. It turned out the organizers didn't have any Visions packs, so he handed out 5th Edition Stater packs and Weatherlight packs. Bull Elephants or Rogue Elephants, it didn't matter: I had a mission and I would win with any set.
As I was opening the packs, it became clear that the field wasn't as competitive as I thought it would be: "Oh wow! You got TWO Scavenger Folks?!?" was something I overheard at the table next to me.
I cruised through the sealed deck portion. The organizers had the whole day to find some Vision packs and we were to play by the rules for the elimination rounds. Across from me at the table sat my mentor Manuel - the one who had insisted that I come to qualify – who would be my first opponent.
I sat down in seat number two. My right neighbor, first to draft, cracked his first booster. He fist bumped as he was laying down his cards. That Disintegrate wasn't meant for my deck I guess? "Draft!" He jumped out of his chair to reach the rare, a Birds of Paradise, to the exasperation of Manuel and my surprise.
Except for Manuel, no one really knew what they were doing. My deck consisted of two copies of Disintegrate, two copies of Rock Slide, one Magma Mine and eighteen white cards, including a whole lot of creatures featuring the broken Limited ability: Banding.
My deck outmatched Manuel's deck in the quarters and I was paired against the Birds of Paradise guy in the semifinals. "I don't really want to go to the Pro Tour" he said. For some reason, that didn't sound right to me. I was there to earn my spot, my deck was insane and there was no way he could leave me without fighting.
I swiftly won the first two games and we were left with a pending question: Was it best of three games or best of five? We looked at each other and shrugged. We called the judge and asked. His answer was quite surprising: "Whatever you decide". I was already up two games so it could have been over right there. My opponent didn't care, I was happy to give him another game. That's how confident I was in my chances.
The match was over a few minutes later, and I ran out of the room as fast as I could towards the closest phone booth. "Maman, I won! You know? The tournament? Well, I went and I won, I'm taking the train home tonight!". I had traveled all the way from Toulouse to Dijon, on a night train, to claim my seat in Mainz the following month.
That would be the last PTQ I would ever have to play to qualify for the Pro Tour. It also settled my presence in the team I had just joined and that would go on to help me win my first major tournament: Team Legion.