Hey everyone, I’m a little late to the party on this, but that’s kind of been the theme around here recently. I wanted to talk a bit about my experience at Pro Tour New Jersey. I’ve got a couple critiques of the event which mostly center on the CFB-end of things: prizes, what sort of events were run, how they were run, etc. But I don’t really want to dilute this article with that stuff. This is a celebratory piece, and the gripes can wait for a future article. The weekend was a pretty wild experience that gave me a whole lot to talk about, so hopefully you’ll pardon me if I present this more as a pastiche of “scenes” than a cohesive narrative.
Setting the Stage
My first time playing FAB was online via TTS, back in the days when Arcane Rising was the new set. The US scene was in its nascent stage and COVID had made leaving the house a no-go for any non-essential activity. This became the way I played for several months, through the release of Crucible of War and into the financial explosion era. At the time, I mostly jammed Blitz games, preferring the quicker pace since I was just cycling through heroes right and left to get a feel for everything. In this period, I was wrapping up my tenure as a moderator on the main FAB Discord, and I’d just launched this site. It felt natural to shift my focus more to the non-gameplay aspects of FAB: the design, culture, and financial end of the game because these were all things I could engage with fully as opposed to cobbling together actual play via online platforms not purpose-built for the task.
So, I began to drift away from online play. While I appreciate the TTS mod for its ability to make some amount of play possible for large portions of the community, the fact that you have to hunt down people to play with and deal with the various intricacies around getting some mechanics to work turned it into a little too much of a chore for me (then, later, there was the whole LGBTQ debacle. I haven’t been back to TTS sine my board game co-op decided to boycott the platform and take our in development games over to screentop.gg). With TTS out, I gave webcams a try with one of Team Covenant’s leagues, but I found it to be an unenjoyable way to play. Although I can identify most FAB cards on sight, I don’t have the corresponding rules imprinted in my brain, so my games involved laboriously pulling up the rules text for most of my opponents’ cards as they were played, which really kills the pace of a game and makes me anxious about wasting my opponent’s time. I tried to get a local shop to pick up the game, but those efforts stalled out as my point of contact left her position at the store. By that time there was another COVID spike, and me playing in person became a thing that would happen “someday” but that I didn’t have a clear path to.
It turns out that Pro Tour New Jersey was that someday. Yep, it was over two years and a few hundred thousand words of content from the point when I first played the game online to when I actually got to sit down and play with physical cards across from another human being. It’s certainly been a journey.
In the Flesh and Blood
Leading into the event, I’d have numerous friends offer to hook me up with competitive decklists, and I was leaning towards bringing a Prism CC deck since I’ve been working on blinging that out since Monarch. But, I ultimately decided that I wouldn’t get as much out of piloting a deck with no real experience of the meta as opposed to just focusing on some casual limited events. Given that, it made sense to just save the constructed stuff for another day –no need to bring a very expensive deck of cards to a busy venue when I might not even get time to play it– and, I think that turned out to be the correct approach. After hours of getting stuck in road work, I arrived late Friday afternoon, gave away some promos, chatted with some people, and then I went back to my hotel without ever having playing a game. Shortly after settling into my room, I get a DM from Matt (a friend who I made in the early days of #wall-street and who I now chat with pretty much daily) saying that he’d just wrapped up with events and dinner and wanted to know if I’d like to meet up to get a game in. I definitely did.
Thus, I found myself in the atrium of the hotel across the street from the expo center with a bunch of Monarch blitz decks and a bottle of The Macallan Edition No 4 because I’ve been telling Matt that I’m going to introduce him to fancier whiskey for like two years now.
In a lot of ways, it felt like a very appropriate “first” game. The stakes were exceedingly low, but that didn’t really matter. Here I was, meeting up with someone who I chat with most days, but have never actually met in person, to actually play the game we’ve been talking about all this time. So there, with the backdrop of glass elevators and creeping ivy, while sipping a whiskey that’s been sitting in my back stock for years, waiting for a decent occasion, I played my first game “the way it was meant to be played”. Of course, Matt, having actually put in the time to get good at the game, beat me pretty handily, and we talked about where my plays went wrong and shuffled up to play another one. It was a pretty perfect way to have a “first” game, all things considered.
Two things happened shortly after that game. First, someone from the hotel came through and told everyone that they had to clear out of the atrium (which is a weird thing that’s never happened to me at a hotel during a convention or event before). Second, and more importantly for our continued story, I heard someone yell “Hey, Freyja! Want to draft some WTR?” from several floors up. I looked up to see some guys, who had participated in my contest earlier in the day, leaning over and waving at us. I asked Matt if he wanted to go draft. He was game; so about ten minutes later, we showed up, me with whiskey in-hand, to draft some WTR with what turned out to be a fairly raucous South Carolina crew.
This was my first time actually getting to draft FAB, and I feel like I managed to hold my own, going 2-1 with Rhinar, dropping one game to another, better Rhinar (and getting a win in against Matt along the way). It was a fun time, heavy on the banter and accented by some good-natured trash talk, which is a familiar space for me –very reminiscent of the guys my brother and I played RPGs with back in high school (and, I guess, still do to this day). After that draft wrapped we were into the AM hours, but everyone was still having a good time, so someone suggested another draft. I was definitely in, so we sat back down and went in for another go. A pack one pick one Braveforge Bracers made my draft a pretty easy choice, and I piloted Dorinthea to another 2-1. The highlight of that one was a Rhinar game where I won off the back of a read that I’m pretty proud of given my relative lack of play experience, in which I overblocked, which kept me alive through the Attack Reaction that was waiting for me and then closed out on my next turn. We finished up around 3AM, when most people were pretty wiped out. It was an excellent start to the weekend.
I made time to play in a TOA sealed event the next day and was briefly an undefeated Briar pilot, but the deck didn’t have enough focus on one element to go the distance. Still it was a fun little thing to do, but the real game, once again was the afterhours informal WTR draft. This time I showed up with a 2019 bottle of Bomberger’s Declaration Bourbon to meet some of Matt’s local San Antonio folks. Once again, I posted a 2-1 finish with Dorinthea learning some lessons along the way, and really solidifying my affection for WTR as a draft format. This time, instead of slipping into another draft, some people left to get some sleep and the rest of us continued to hang out and just chat about whatever. It’s always interesting to end up as the outside person among a group of people who already know each other to varying degrees, but it was an absolute blast just bullshitting about random topics as far ranging as boudoir photography, hockey vs. football, the US education system, and so very many other tangents. Being the bad influence that I am, I managed to keep the two Matts up drinking and talking until well after everyone else had turned in. I returned to my own room around 5AM, incredibly charmed by the evening and just a tiny bit sad that I wasn’t going to be able to roll up to an Armory and see that group again the following week.
These two nights in sequence felt like a sort of hyper compressed initiation into two different groups’ local scenes. It was a really lovely way to dive into physical play. The informality of it happening outside of the big events being run at the Expo center reminded me of the energy of a night of barhopping through some of the iconic bars in cities like New York or Chicago where you get to step into these spaces that have such a distinct identity about them, and, if you’re lucky and the vibes are right, you leave feeling like a regular. (Ugh, now I’m thinking about how long it’s been since the last time I was at Delilah’s). Although I still very much wish FAB had a first party online client, because I would absolutely be able to play more and actually have a shot at getting good at the game in a way my current sporadic access to other players doesn’t allow, there is undeniably something special about in person play when the mood is on point.
Apologies to the Other Pink-Haired Women
Before the event, I wrote something to the effect of “I’ll be easy to find, just look for the very over-dressed woman with pink hair.” My assumption being that women would be in the minority at the event and pink hair was uncommon enough that I’d be easy to spot. Instead, every few hours, I’d meet another woman with pink hair who was like “are you the reason everyone is asking me if I’m Freyja?” Sorry, y’all, my bad.
But that’s a good segue to the odd experience of being recognized by people. Throughout the weekend people came up to me and asked some form of “are you Freyja/Ada?” which is not something that normally happens to me in my day-to-day life. It was very flattering to have people come up and say they liked my writing, ask for pictures, or just swing by to say “hi”. A huge range of people introduced themselves to me over the weekend from players, to other content creators, judges (I briefly thought I had committed some sort of game rules violation on one of those), as well as LSS staff and founders.
This reached its peak when I walked into an elevator with one other occupant, where there was a slight pause before James White asked “are you Freyja?” (or “Ada”; I forget which). It was such an amusing way to start a conversation, as I’m relatively sure that interaction is traditionally supposed to go in the opposite direction. In any case, it was a delightful little meeting of happenstance that served as a sort of bow on top of the gift that this whole weekend turned out to be.
One related thing I do want to note is that I was incredibly impressed by James White’s commitment to making himself available to the community during that weekend. He’s in a position where he absolutely doesn’t need to do that, but he spent the bulk of the weekend playing and chatting with the community at the terminus of a line that seemingly never got below 20-30 people deep the entire weekend and was often much longer. Regardless of any critiques I have made in the past or will doubtlessly make in the future concerning choices LSS makes about the game, I have a lot of respect for how James leads the company, especially in terms of how he engages with the community.
This is obviously just my personal take, but I really do think that James’ approach is what distinguishes FAB from the other top CCGs that it’s working to compete with. I know/have known designers and other creatives who work/have worked on Magic, and while I know they are passionate about the game, at the end of the day, the people who ultimately get to make the calls at Hasbro/WotC are more concerned with setting another quarter of record-breaking profits than they are about the identity of the game itself. The vast majority of the decisions made around FAB (even when I disagree with some of them) legitimately feel like they’re being made to try to make the game great. Yes, profits matter, but they genuinely don’t feel like they come before everything else, which is a rare luxury to be able to do in this industry. At the end of the day, I feel like, despite sometiems having different thoughts on how to get there, LSS wants the game to be good for the community in most of the same ways I do. That’s probably a major reason why I’m still here writing about it.
Bits and Pieces
I don’t have time to talk about all the great interactions I had with people over the weekend, and I feel bad about not calling out more people by name (though, I never know who would prefer to remain anonymous vs. being signaled out, and, without having asked them at the time, I tend to lean towards being cautious and keeping most everyone anonymous). But I’ll throw out a couple nods here that can stand as emblematic of some of the fun moments of the weekend.
At different times throughout the weekend, I got to speak to some people about game design both as it applies to FAB and just concerning tabletop games in general. As someone who is actively working on game design, I always love to have a good convo about the subject, especially when you run into someone who knows their stuff and let’s you advance your own thinking through your interaction.
To the self-described “goblin” who noted a general agreement with the assessments in my dateability article, I am charmed by your insistence that tentacle Levia is worth going for even if you know it’s a bad idea. I have to respect a girl who knows what she wants, even if it’s probably going to end poorly.
To my trading partner who made it a mission to find me the two sets of Wartune Heralds I needed to get Prism back up to fulling promo’ed status, I really appreciate the legwork you put in to making that happen, and I hope the CF Nullrune gear serves you well.
To all of the content creators who dropped off playmats, tokens, and other assorted items for me, it was incredibly generous of you to do so, and I’m glad we got to sit down to chat forever short or long time allowed. I promise that, someday, I’ll print up some business cards or something, so I can at least play into the illusion that I’m running some sort of proper opperation here.
One of my favorite set of weird experiences were the times when I’d be talking with a stranger about some random aspect of FAB only to have them cite one of my own articles to me. You know people actually mean the things they’re saying about your work when they have no idea they’re talking to the person who wrote it.
For the Future
I hope that I didn’t leave anyone feeling slighted if I saw and recognized but didn’t introduce myself to you. I’m a weird blend of introvert and extrovert. Once you actually engage me, I’m pretty comfortable talking at length about whatever –like I said, I was having a random discussion about boudoir photography a couple hours after meeting the San Antonio crew. After years of teaching, I’m comfortable talking in front of groups, and I don’t really get star struck. But alongside all of that, I generally just default to assuming that if people want to talk to me, they’ll come talk to me. To be the one to initiate a conversation feels like I’m being a bother, which I realize is how plenty of other people feel about approaching me, but brains are weird. Anyway, as a result of that mindset, pretty much the only people I approached over the weekend were people I’ve talked to online before –like Rob Cygul and I have chatted a few times over the past few years, and he checked up on me after one of the more public instances of sexual harassment stuff, so I swung by to say high and congratulate him on Team Dragon Shield when I saw him. But yeah, it’s just kind of how I am. So, if you see me at a future event and want to say “hi,” please feel free to do so. Otherwise, I’ll probably just be trying to stay out of people’s hair.
There’s a lot more I could talk about –hell, I’m pretty sure I could make this twice as long with relative ease, but I think I got to most of the major things I wanted to touch on. Pro Tour New Jersey was a weekend I went into somewhat tentatively. I didn’t have a group of people I was going with, which is a first for me. I played big Magic events during most of grad school, but I almost always traveled with one of my best friends and often we had additional friends and acquaintances with us. Going into Jersey, I wasn’t sure if I’d actually end up doing much of anything. This was borne out in my packing, I had a couple romance novels with me, and I packed my laptop with the idea that, if all else failed, I could just chill in my hotel room, drink some whiskey, and work on my writing. However, I never found a moment to even open the thing, and, as noted above, ultimately ended up playing FAB and hanging out with people into the wee hours of each morning.
To close this out, if I can leave you all with a couple pieces of advice they would be as follows:
1.) Buy more WTR unlimited. I assure you, 99% of those of you who are reading this are not holding enough, especially when boxes can be found for $60 or less with a little effort. The set is an absolute joy to draft, and one day, it is going to sell out. Sure, cubes are a great way to experience something that approximates a particular draft environment, but there’s just this sort of ineffable ritual significance in tearing the shrink wrap off a box and passing actual sealed booster packs around a table. Grab some boxes or cases, as your budget allows – draft them now or draft them later (ideally both), but don’t let yourself miss out on this particular point in time where you can draft the very first set at bargain prices.
2.) If you can make it to a Pro Tour-sized event, it’s worth going at least once just to take it all in. Despite having been to similarly-sized Magic events back in the day, the PT had its own distinct energy. Throughout the weekend I had conversations with a bunch of different people that led down a path that had me describing what the game and the community were like back in the Arcane Rising or Crucible of War days to people who started in Monarch, Tales, or Everfest. I sometimes think of myself as a sort of armchair cultural historian of FAB, as I’ve been here since a little while before the game blew up. While you obviously can’t replicate the financial experience of watching cards you bought for $5 sell for $500. In terms of the important development of the community and the game itself, we’re still in what, I’m sure, will one day be considered the “early days” of FAB. Get out there and experience it. It’ll be a fun bit of nostalgia to talk about it with the people who get into the game in five or ten years.
3.) As a follow up to point two, don’t go into a weekend with a sense of needing to participate in the main event. If you want to, then by all means participate, but don’t feel like not being ready to compete in the big serious game should preclude you from going and having a good time. I knew I hadn’t put the legwork into preparing to play, and opting out of it in no way kept me from having a great time. Honestly, I had more fun in those spontaneous no-stakes WTR drafts than I did at some of the big Magic events I Day 2’ed or regional Legacy events that I won back when I was in competitive form.
Anyway, thanks to everyone who helped make it a memorable weekend. Now I’ve got to go finish sleeving up that Prism deck; my local shop started hosting events a couple months ago, and I’ve finally got the time in my schedule to attend. I’m sure that, come Tuesday, I’m going to get beaten handily by a bunch of players with more CC experience than me, but I’ll at least do it with a great-looking deck!
*Header Image – Untitled art by Sam Yang from the A Grand Adventure lore