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The Game in the Gulf

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The letter I! was out of breath, rushing around my apartment. Paranoia had set in, and I struggled to verify everything on my Magic Cruise checklist had been packed lest I forget the one thing you need on such an adventure.

"Did you get the biodegradable sunscreen?" my girlfriend Jess yelled from the bedroom. Crap, I thought to myself. Did I?

Intuitively, my perspicacious cat Pepper wound herself between my legs. I looked down with a scowl. The joke's on you, I thought, crankily. You may be in my way now, but you're stuck with the cat sitter for the next week, punk!

Day 1

Hall of Famer and VIP Mike Turian tries his hand at a different game.

"It's so windy up here!" Dave Guskin exclaimed as we reached the top deck of the boat. There were five of us: Dave, a web developer for Wizards of the Coast; Jess; myself; Hall of Famer, R&D member, and Magic Cruise VIP Mike Turian; and his wife Rachel.

"Do you think this will affect our game?" Mike shouted back to Dave. Having just arrived and boarded the boat, we had all decided to play some miniature golf while waiting to leave port. I was worried I had gotten rusty since my days as a lifeguard where I could practice for free all summer long on the course outside the pool where I worked. Luckily for me the high-intensity winds made the whole thing a farce, and we quickly went from miniature golfing to watching as the winds bombarded our golf balls all over while we laughed hysterically.

After golfing we had rushed off to a meet and greet to visit with some of our fellow Magic cruisers. While doing so I had the chance to chat with Steve Port and Lindsey Kary, the Legion Events staff members responsible for putting the event together. Having grown up playing PTQs in Steve's area of the Midwest, most notably Madison, Wisconsin and Minneapolis, Minnesota, being at a Legion event was old hat for me. Still, it was exciting knowing Steve had brought some of the best members of his staff on board to help make sure events ran smoothly.

Legion Events Staff Steve Port, Lindsey Kary, judge Chris Richter, scorekeeper Jason Lems, and professional fan John Stolzmann (L-R).

We cruise-goers soon became aware we had left for sea, the floor slowly swaying underneath us. Looking to gain our sea legs, everyone headed to their rooms to prepare for dinner. One of the greatest things about a cruise is the fact the food is all included in your trip cost. That means round-the-clock eating of some of the best food in the world! Plus, on top of that, you're assigned a table of people to sit with on your first night who you'll see each night all week long. That's handy for getting to know new people who quickly become "old" people, giving you a base to return to each night. After a long day traveling, I was looking forward to a good night's food and meeting some new friends.

Patrick Chapin's dinner table group on the Magic Cruise.

After a lengthy meal with some newfound friends, the fatigue of a long night's travel began to set in. Taking the red-eye from Seattle to Houston before catching the shuttle to the boat hadn't been such a great idea after all, and rather than tough out the first half-day at sea with a midnight draft, only to wake up exhausted the next morning, I made the wiser decision of going to bed. After all, both Pat Chapin and Mike Turian had presentations to make in the morning, and I was looking forward to hearing what they had to say.

Miniature golf with a Hall of Famer, round-the-clock gaming, and the best food on the high seas all on the first day? This trip is going to be unlike anything I've ever experienced, I thought, before collapsing into slumber for the night.

Day 2

The room was dark, perhaps too dark. Certainly too dark to be time to get up. I rolled over, willing unconsciousness to leave me be so I could sleep for another hour.

"Bill."

Where was that voice coming from? Should I be paying attention to it?

"BILL."

The voice was getting louder.

"BILL! It's past noon! We slept in!"

My heart picked up its pace and I jerked upright in bed. "What?" I asked. Jess was standing by the door, ready to leave for the day.

"We missed the alarm, and it's almost past lunch time. You've got to get up!"

Crud. I slumped back in bed, still tired, trying to convince myself of the appropriate course of action. I hopped up out of bed, grabbed a quick shower, and headed on deck for the (first?) Launch Party held at sea. Celebrating the newly available Conflux, nearly the entire number of Game in the Gulf cruisers turned up for the event.

Players excitedly prepare for the Conflux Release event.

I opened an exciting pool with my favorite cards, Armillary Sphere and Courier's Capsule. I'm the type of player who loves drawing cards (Ken Nagle, another Wizards R&D member, teased me all weekend long about being a "griefer") and could care less about what those cards are. For that reason, I ran the six-creature special hoping my removal, card drawing, and Inkwell Leviathan would see me through the day.

In the first round, I was paired against Peter Beckfield, a fellow Seattle player. He had come along for the trip with his friend Joe Timidaiski, another Seattle player whom I had met before. Peter and I had even tested a bit prior to the event starting to get a feel for our decks. We each took one of the first two games, but I was the victor in the final, walking away with the match.

Bill defeats Peter Beckfield in the Conflux Release event.

The second round saw me battling long time Madison standout Jim Hustad. His pool had some really cool hits, like twin copies of Fusion Elemental which could prove to be a very frightening five-drop, but some mana-screw in the second game after a hard fought victory in the first saw me take the match.

Jim Hustad and Bill battle.

Next up was Eric Gauedrault. Earlier in the day I had seen Eric chatting with his girlfriend and a third member of their party in French, and I was curious to find out his story. After beating him in three close games, I stuck around to chat with him. He soon revealed that he and his girlfriend, Solange, were on the trip with their friend Dominic, all from Quebec, Canada. That explained the French, but how had they found out about the trip?

"We saw ads on StarCityGames," Eric explained before Solange jumped in.

"Yeah, I wanted to go on a cruise, and he wanted to play cards, so it worked out perfectly!"

When asked how long he had been playing, Eric responded "A while. I've played three PTQs, but they're far away from where we live. I've just become a competitive player this year." And Solange?

Laughing, she replied, "I just started. It's tough because you have to learn all the tricks, but it's fun!"

Eric Gauedrault and Solange Page de Beaumont enjoy their trip.

The final round of the event was against David Lehmann. I couldn't place it, but knew David looked familiar. When he finally mentioned the same thing, I asked him where he was from. When he revealed that he was a fellow Midwesterner from the Madison area, everything clicked together. We had no doubt seen each other at numerous PTQs over the past few years. David had come with his family to enjoy the trip together and, since we were the final undefeated players, wanted to draw in the final round to ensure at least five packs for his day's efforts. I wanted to play, but the difference in one pack for winning as opposed to drawing wasn't worth dream-crushing to me, so we drew. We then played the match anyway (I took a squeaker down at just 1 life in the final game).

David Lehmann and the 3-0-1 spoils.

It had already been a long day's playing by the time dinner rolled around, but with a Two-Headed Giant Sealed Deck event slotted to kick off the evening, we weren't even close to being finished. Dave Guskin, one of the brave souls who had battled through miniature golf during the afternoon we left port, had volunteered to team up with me, and we happily cracked our packs to build decks. In the background, some rough seas had started sloshing the ship to and fro. Neither Dave nor I seemed to notice, but we soon would.

Our first round was against my dinner table mates Bryan Greer and his girlfriend Shannon Erickson. We were quickly smashed, and at that point started noticing the swaying of the boat more acutely. It certainly wasn't bothering Dave nor me, but in the background two VIPs (who shall remain nameless) excused themselves for an evening curled up in bed wishing they were on dry land. It turns out the best solution for beating seasoned pros isn't the latest tech, working on your play, or outmaneuvering them. Nope, just hide their Dramamine.

In the final round we lost after being paired up against Patrick Chapin and his teammate CJ Barrett, but Dave guilted the prize hander-outers into giving us a pity pack for going 0-2 after getting paired up. Score!

For the second night in a row I hit the sack exhausted, but excited to be doing what I was doing.

Day 3

The third day of the trip was the first in a port, the lovely island city of Cozumel. The seas the night before had been abnormally rough after all, and we arrived in port a few hours later than expected. Still, we were going to get to remain in port longer, so things worked out rather nicely. Guskin, Jess, and I had signed up for a trip around the city that involved biking and snorkeling in the Gulf of Mexico. To say we were excited would be an understatement.

Dave and Jess prepare for a long day's adventure.

After a good twenty or thirty minutes biking with our guide Juan Carlos, we hit the beach. While I've seen a lot of ocean in my day, I had never seen seas so clear as Cozumel's.

Some of the most beautiful water in the world.

Of course, some of the sights in the water were just as beautiful.


By the time we were done snorkeling, we headed back to the beach to catch our ship home. Suffice to say we were all exhausted and looking forward to a nice dinner. Said dinner was even capped off with a lovely surprise birthday celebration for Ken Nagle, who gained another year of wisdom while on the boat. Rachel Dutton Turian, Mike's wife, even managed to finagle a cake for her husband's R&D teammate.

Ken Nagle celebrates his birthday on the Magic Cruise.

Day 4

For the second day in a row we arrived in a port city, caught up on time from the previous day's activities. Progreso was our second stop, with more focus on the history of Mexico than the beach. I headed off for an adventure amongst ancient Mayan ruins called Dzibilchaltun, excited to see first hand the history of a place I had studied in college.

It was a long bus ride to the site of the ruins, but well worth it. Stretching back thousands of years, the site was home to some incredible archeological oddities, including a Stonehenge-like temple with a window that frames the sun exactly twice a year during the summer and winter solstices.

Twice a year the central entryway is aglow with the power of the sun.

Our guide explained how the roadways surrounding the ruins were made out of a stark white granite, because of the material's ready availability but also because it reflects light very well, allowing travelers to journey at night. In addition, there were obelisks, ziggurats, and a host of amazing architectural structures excavated over the past half century.

The most amazing site, however, came near the end of the tour. As we wound through the ruined compound, our guide carefully navigated us towards a secluded clearing. Unable to see it from atop the ruins, we walked out upon one of the most amazing natural springs I've ever seen. Fed by deep underground reserves of water, the spring was one of the clearest bodies of water I've seen in all my life. Its aquamarine blue shone like turquoise to the point where you could clearly see each fish hiding under the lily pads. We stopped to get a photo with some of the cruise-goers.

Noel Helgesen, Joel Nerenberg, and Lewis Nerenberg take in the beauty of Dzibilchaltun.

It is a truly wonderful thing to get to take in such beauty and history while on a trip to play Magic, and as long as I live I don't think I'll ever forget the sight of that crystal clear body of water appearing out of the ancient Mayan ruins of Progreso.

We headed back for the port to meet up with our ship, but not before running into some friends from onboard. Taking the opportunity, we posed for a photo in front our boat the Carnival Ecstasy.

Joe Timidaiski, Peter Beckfield, Dave Guskin, Jess LaSusa, Teresa Pierce, and Dwayne St. Arnauld (L-R).

After what had seemed like no time, the cruise was winding to a close, and we were down to just one more night on board. I drifted off to sleep trying to determine how to get the most enjoyment out of the following day, and mentally preparing myself for my first PTQ at sea.

Day 5

The morning arrived far too early and I hopped out of bed to grab breakfast and see Evan Erwin give his presentation about the Cube Draft format for Magic. Always an entertainer, Evan went all-out with his speech, bringing his own Cube and displaying it clearly for everyone to see. He even recorded the entire thing, perhaps to be viewed later in full on his Magic themed weekly video show.

Evan Erwin gives a seminar on Cube drafting.

Finishing just in time, the players who had come to listen to Evan turned their attentions to the big tournament for the day, a Honolulu Pro Tour Qualifier. Being on a boat had dramatically affected my ability to get cards for events. I had brought enough for two Extended decks, looking forward to the PTQ, but had only brought a sideboard for one, my Martyr Proclamation deck. After spending the first few days of the event testing, I had decided to switch decks to Affinity, but that left me scrounging to find cards for the sideboard I wanted. In the end, I had to make do. Here's what the deck I played looked like:

Bill Stark's Cruise Affinity


I couldn't find a full set of Relic of Progenitus, so I used the slightly less powerful analogue from Mirrodin, Scrabbling Claws. I also couldn't find the fourth Trickbind, but did come up with a Stifle. Ultimately the hodgepodge sideboard served me well enough to finish in the Top 4 of the event, losing to ultimate winner Shaun Piazza (playing Affinity himself, no less!). The tournament was a blast and, though I came close yet failed, I had a lot of fun.

That left one final night to enjoy the boat and the people on board, and to make some final memories to take home. What better place to do so than at the karaoke bar? A gaggle of Gulf gamers headed that way to do their best (or worst), but it was a surprising rendition of "Wanted, Dead or Alive" from Roberto Gonzales that left us all with our mouths on the floor. The New Mexico resident had made the effort to meet people early on the cruise, sending a mass email to each of us prior to the event introducing himself. After dealing with some ribbing from the MC at the karaoke bar, Roberto took over, stealing the crowd once he had the microphone in hand, splitting us into three sections, and getting each section involved in battling over who could sing the chorus of his song loudest. It didn't hurt that Roberto could sing, and he left the floor to a flabbergasted MC and a crowd going wild.

Roberto Gonzales rocks the crowd with backup dancing help from Pat Chapin and Dave Guskin.

We closed the evening with some goofing around, with a host of the fellas mugging for the camera.

Roberto Gonzales, Bryan Greer, Bill Stark, Mike Turian, and Dwayne St. Arnauld (L-R).

It was a bittersweet evening, filled with a lot of fun with many new friends and a semi-successful bid at the PTQ, and yet after less than a week, no one wanted things to end. The first Magic Cruise, it turned out, had been bigger than anyone could have imagined, and everyone on board was busy plotting what they would be doing for a possible follow-up the next year.

Between big events, non-stop Magicing, round-the-clock food, even two engagements—

Dwayne St. Arnauld and Teresa Pierce, along with Shannon Erickson and Bryan Greer, left the boat with wedding bells on their mind.

—or just the little things like towel animals on your bed when you came home at night—

Welcome home!

—all in all, the Magic Cruise was a one-of-a-kind experience, and I can't wait to go back. I longingly imagine us a year from now, basking in the sun, playing cards on a gigantic cruise ship with the folks from dinner table 771 (like Ben and Judy Coursey, or Brandon Butch, or all the other wonderful people who broke bread with us for a week), but after the experience from this year, I'll have enough memories to tide me over until then.


I fiddled with the key, trying to get the door unlocked. At the back of my mind, concern for having been gone from Peppercat for five days gnawed at me guiltily. Finally the tumblers clicked and I pushed the door open. Pepper, as usual, was waiting for us in the foyer, nonplussed about our absence.

"So I guess you didn't miss us after all?" I asked, not sure if I expected an answer. Curling herself around my legs, Pepper quickly went about reminding me she could do without all the human intrusions on her life if she truly wanted.


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