This is a story about game designer Brad Finlayson on how Magic, and other games, have changed his life in profound, and dare we say, ‘Magical’ ways.
Hey readers, my name is Brad Finlayson. I am a game designer, healer and martial artist from the Sunshine Coast of BC, Canada. I will be writing game design and strategy articles for my own games as well as ones I play like Magic: the Gathering and the digital CCG Solforge. My articles will include general strategies, event reports, limited format set previews, Magic variant rules for an army-style tactical game, and some game design articles.
If you’re reading this, you probably play card games like Magic: the Gathering. Don’t worry, the strategy articles are coming… This one, however, is about my story. The story of our lives and how our common interests create connections and community, and how our actions ripple out through our friends and family into the world and come back exponentially amplified.
This story is about my Magical Life and how games, particularly Magic: the Gathering, have shaped it. They have gifted me with some of the greatest friends and experiences of my life. This is an ongoing adventure of synchronizing with like-minded individuals. If you’re a gamer, you know what I mean, and will undoubtedly find parallels with your own story here, and if you’ve been playing games for decades, this should be an enjoyable walk down memory lane.
Why share these stories?
Sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in the game and miss these connections and moments. By reminiscing and contemplating about these people and places, gratitude and appreciation arises not only for the past, but in the present as we continue living our gaming lives.
My gaming journey starts at the age of 5 when my Dad opened up Astrocade, a video arcade during the boom times of PacMan, Donkey Kong, Tempest, etc. Evidently, crowds used to watch me play Crazy Climber. We also had many home PCs, and gaming consoles with 100′s of games.
Video Games: Check!
I was already designing games at this age and still have many of my notebooks from this time. I have even referenced some notes I created while still in elementary school for games I’m developing now (particularly a master dragon list where I had compiled a list of dragons and their traits from every game and legend I could find and added a few of my own). As I went through my life I was introduced to all the main genres of games and incorporated them into my design repertoire.
My Dad has always been into Sci-Fi and technology, so I was surrounded by all the current games and sci-fi/fantasy media. I saw Star Wars: A New Hope in the theatre from my Mother’s belly and I watched The Empire Strikes Back in 1982 in silent awe. Throughout my childhood, we played all manner of board and card games – the basics like Monopoly, RISK, Trivial Pursuit, and puzzles. I also spent countless hours grinding rummy with my Grandma before my 10th birthday.
Board Games: Check!
Traditional Card Games: Check!
Star Wars: Check!
A couple years later my Dad gave me the basic rules for Dungeons & Dragons. And by basic I mean basic. Your character options were fighter, cleric, wizard, thief, elf, dwarf, and halfling. I still have these books in my RPG collection. I went on to play many different themes and systems over the years and am currently playing Pathfinder (GM & 6 players, level 5 Mythic Elf Magus) and just started a new campaign with Star Wars Saga Edition (GM & 4 players, level 3 Cerean Jedi).
Roleplaying Games: Check!
In the late 1980′s I got introduced to Warhammer and sported Undead and Dark Elves in Fantasy, and Eldar in 40K. I still have my minis and many friends that still actively play although I haven’t played in a while. I like to keep a watch on all the latest minis games as the art is always amazing. I have a large collection of minis from many games and themes that I am mostly using now to playtest my own creations.
Tactical Miniatures Games: Check!
In 1991, the first of the two games that have effected my life the most was released: Street Fighter 2 World Warrior! Unfortunately by this time Astrocade was no more, but my best buds and I threw every quarter we could find into this game. The controls, graphics, parallax scrolling, special techniques and the ability to create your own style took gaming to a whole new level. I fondly recall the bliss of discovering a lonely laundromat where I didn’t have to wait my turn, or welcome new challengers every couple minutes. I could practice my combos and spinning piledrivers all day long against the punching bag computer.
This was a great year for me, and for gaming. It was the year Magic was released (although I miss out on the first year) and the year I met some of my best friends while playing Street Fighter 2 at the 7-Eleven near my high school. These are still close friends, and ones who also had a passion for game creation (mainly video games as opposed to tabletop) and we went on to create awesome, playable prototype video games including a wicked fighting game that encompassed many crazy characters from all time, space and imagination with controls so smooth and responsive you could do a 360 degree motion with ease on the keyboard. These friends of mine are still actively involved in the competitive fighting game scene.
During this time I also got into Bulletin Board Systems and online games including text MMORPGs, of which, one of the best of all time (and one of the first to introduce full multiplayer PvP) MajorMud was developed right here in Vancouver. I could write an article just on that, and the experiences we had with just text based movement and combat. You needed to be a fast typer, let me tell you that. We would also attend live events, some with up to 200 people where we got to meet everyone in person. And after battling for epic fame and gear online, some of these meetings got quite interesting.
While I was in high school, and wanted to be cool and fit in, so I had requested that my parents pick me up a Vaurnet shirt from their trip to Bellingham. My Mom however, being right as she always is, called me long distance from a Bellingham mall to tell me about this new game that they were demoing in the mall and selling boxes for not much more than the cost of the shirt. Knowing me as well as she does, she thought it looked like something I would really like (it was) and if instead of getting a Vaurnet shirt, if I would like a box of these ‘Magic’ cards. I had never heard of it (because it was that new) so I didn’t listen to her and stayed course on the Vaurnet shirt. I wish she didn’t listen to me. Those were boxes of Beta or Unlimited and of course I would’ve started the Magic part of my Magical journey a little earlier. I still believe that that shirt holds a great amount of Magic power in it that I will one day release!
Some of my friends started playing this collectible card game called Magic: the Gathering. It sounded familiar and looked kind of cool so I went and bought a tournament pack of Revised. I remember being disappointed that my first rare was Birds of Paradise. 0/1? What’s the point? 🙁 (for those of you who don’t know, this is actually a very good card despite it’s small body).
Needless to say I was hooked and started collecting and playing excessively. Even searching BBSs for obscure Magic knowledge, buying magazines, and eventually devouring the Dojo online. After a year or so, the friends who got me interested in Magic were losing theirs and I moved on to find more places to play. I went to Mishra’s Game Factory in Burnaby. This was one of the original stores that carried Magic and ran tournaments. Their walls were murals of life-sized versions of card art painted by the original artists!
I started attending regularly around the time of Tempest and I was lucky enough to befriend, and get the crap kicked out of me by, some of the best Magic players BC has ever seen. I drafted, did sealed decks with Mox Diamonds on the line, stayed up all night playtesting and traveled with them to Seattle to attend Pro Tour Qualifiers. Most importantly I learned how to play Magic well.
Although I didn’t succeed in making the Pro Tour or winning a big tournament, I realize now that I didn’t put in the time that the others did. My gaming attention was pulled between too many games, (including my own creations) all of which I played at a competitive level, but because of that I never was able to break through in any of them. I just didn’t grind the numbers long and hard enough in one game.
“Who ever practices more will be better,” my healing & martial arts teacher GrandMaster Dr. Alex Yen, would later say when asked what the best martial art was: “There is no best style, it comes down to who practices their style more.” (There is an addendum to this comment that he would sometimes add: that Tai Chi is the best martial art but takes much longer to master because you must master your energy and your opponents energy in addition to the physical level mastery required in all martial arts. Once mastered however, it is vastly superior to any martial art that does not utilize and manipulate personal biological energy.)
At this time my parents had a collectables store that specialized in antique toys and games. Through their store I met Professor Who, who among many talents and collections, had the biggest and best Magic singles business at the time. He took it to release tournaments and weekend markets, in particular the Vancouver Flea Market. He was looking to get out of it and with my parent’s store as a permanent location, I bought him out and started Moggyawth’s Bargains.
The Urza’s Saga prerelease was my first big event. This was the first foil Prerelease promo card Lightning Dragon (which I still have) and one of the most broken blocks of all time. At this tournament that Mishra’s ran, it was just them and I selling cards. I didn’t sell much sealed product and they didn’t sell much singles at the time so we didn’t step on each other’s toes. I traded up and made a huge profit that weekend buying and selling many power and shortly-to-be-banned cards.
Make money with Magic: Check!
Things were going very well, until others starting catching on that they could open boxes at cost, buy, sell and trade to make a huge profit off of Magic singles. So slowly but surely more and more tables were popping up at the shows, markets and tournaments until that enormous success I experienced during my brief but triumphant semi-monopoly on Magic singles slowly dwindled. One of these people was Jordan Woo who set up shop at the same flea market. We became friends and light competitors. I am happy that Jordan, a great guy and one of the originals, went on to own the biggest and best game store in the Vancouver Lower Mainland: Magic Stronghold.
Although still profitable, it wasn’t enough to keep me invested, so shortly after the Apocalypse set was released I unloaded my power and other expensive cards, and sold the rest of the collection (save the sentimental Lightning Dragon, some un-lands and paraphernalia) to a start up somewhere in the states. I sometimes wonder whatever came of that collection.
Part of my reason for selling is that I wanted to take video game development farther. My friends and I already had the prototype for the fighting game I mentioned in part 1, so to supplement that I decided to take the Electronic Game Art and Design course at the Center for Digital Imaging and Sound starting in 2000. To make room for school and game development I sold Moggyawth’s Bargains and stepped away from Magic for a few blocks until 2004.
Over the years, I worked on a few video games that got to a playable prototype level with full back stories and art plans. Unfortunately, each time, one or more critical members of the team would go get a real job which would bring an end (hopefully temporary) to the project. This time the programming genius got offered a job at an established video game company for a pay check before we could complete the project. We have worked on a few games and websites over the years between jobs and other projects, and still plan to release video games at some point.
This challenge in completing a video game project (which is a massive undertaking) prompted me to focus on tabletop games as they can be managed by myself with a small number of people that don’t have to have programming skill. I would like to make some video games in the future including digital versions of some of our tabletop games.
During this time I was doing a lot of reading and studying of various disciplines (have to bring up the real life stats sometimes. One of the books that moved me the most was Herman Hesse’s last novel The Glass Bead Game (GBG) also known as Magister Ludi. Hesse won a Nobel prize for the work. In the GBG, subjects in the elite schools of the future were united by the GBG which encompassed all subjects and objects through linking correlating patterns that were somehow related in a parallel, by adding, subtracting, or similar fashion. Hesse never explicitly explained the rules in his book which has led the GBG to be a holy grail of sorts for game designers. You can see how people have been approaching it here, here, and here.
The game played something like this: two players (whether at home or in front of a massive crowd at a stadium) would alternate turns placing glass beads with symbols on them that represented different ideas, letters, numbers, etc. The first player would start by placing some beads that might show a mathematical equation. There would then be a short period where everyone (including the spectators) would meditate and contemplate the pattern. The other player would then alter, add to, or some how relate to the previous pattern with their own glass bead symbols. For example, this could be a piece of music that used math from the equation. The other player may then lay out beads that form a part of a poem that is connected to the piece of music in some way. This would go on until one did not relate any beads to the previous pattern.
The actual rules were never detailed so this is just my interpretation. Anyways, the book is amazing (all Hesse’s works are) and you should read it as there is much more to it than the GBG.
The GBG inspired me to start work on a gaming system capable of incorporating any idea a player may have into any type of game (board, card, tactical, RPG, trivia, etc.), in any theme (modern, history, sci-fi, fanstasy, etc.) using a modular, open-ended system that rewarded creative and lateral thinking in addition to the logic, linear thinking prevalent in most games.
This gave birth to G-Aim: Universal Gaming System, of which Symetra is the first game.
|I returned to BC after being abroad for a while and moved in right across the street from Triple C (cards, comics, coins) Collectibles in Coquitlam and started drafting and playing again during the time of 5th Dawn. This was the first time I saw the new card borders. I started showing up for limited tournaments and building my collection through picks and winnings. I befriended one of the top players at the small store who later sold me a giant box of cards from the last 3 blocks I missed for just $60. He mainly drafted and just cherry picked the top cards. This started my new collection and gave me a side business when I moved to the Sunshine Coast (where I live now).
I was introduced to the Sunshine Coast through a Magic-customer turned close friend who grew up there. He was into game development as well and was the ultimate black card collector with at least 1 of almost every black spell ever printed. He was always getting me to hunt down rare expensive cards like Juzam Djinn. Upon visiting the Sunshine Coast with him I immediately resonated with the creative and conscious community I found there, and as you will read, moving to the Coast led me to meet some of the most important people of my life. This is one of the Magic-influenced events that had a profound impact on my life.
The Sunshine Coast is a semi-rural community that is a 40 minute ferry ride from Vancouver (it is the dark green area on the map). No one on the Sunshine Coast sold singles at the time which was during Kamigawa block. I loved the Japanese theme: samurai, ninja, animal-people and freaky looking spirit/kami! It was an awesome story full of legends and it was the first time I read the novels to go along with the sets. I also had a collection of every card from all 3 sets (still have most of them). This was also the original block that I developed the Army Magic variant. Legendary heroes leading their armies across the lands vs the attacking spirit armies!
Around this time I met my healing and martial arts instructor GrandMaster Dr. Zeusan Yen. Although I continued working on G-Aim and Symetra (then called G-Aim Cosmic) I got out of Magic for another few blocks while I soaked up as much knowledge and experience with my teacher as possible. This was around the time of the original Ravnica block in late 2005.
During the next few years I went through a major shift by meeting many amazing teachers and friends, and being part of many groups focused on transforming one’s life into exactly what one wants. I learned 5 styles of Kung Fu, Hapkido, Tae Kwon Do, Qi Gong & Chinese Medicine from my Sifu and started teaching alongside him. Since he passed away I have continued to share his lineage of knowledge. I got involved with permaculture, sustainable building & drafting, and started working at a friend of mine’s video store: Sid’s Vids.
In late 2008 I started up some kitchen table Magic again around the time of Shards of Alara. My roommate and I loved grabbing sealed decks and slowly building our collection. During this time another friend of mine, who was playing during the last 4 blocks that I missed, started playing again and eventually gave me his cards from those exact blocks. This was the second time someone filled in the precise blocks I had missed.
Not too long after, video stores were dying out due to digital downloads and streaming. My friend/boss Syd asked me if there was any product I could think of that might supplement the store’s income any only take up a few shelves behind the counter. Sid’s Vids has one of the largest film collections out there, and it would’ve been a shame to lose it all. That also meant that there wasn’t much room for new merchandise.
My answer was Magic of course. I had run the business before, it took up a very small amount of shelf space, no one on the Coast was selling much product (some sealed and a few singles) and no one was running any tournaments at all, let alone sanctioned. We started carrying product, cracking boxes and selling singles. I looked into getting sanctioned tournaments and prizes going and it wasn’t too long before we had Core level Wizards Player Network status and were running 30-40 person Prereleases which we still do to this day. This was during Zendikar block.
Since then, the other four video stores on the Sunshine Coast have closed down. With running such a tight margin ourselves, we are sure Magic saved our store and one of the best remaining film collections!
More Magic income and saved the business / my job: check!
While playing Magic at the store one day a customer commented that he used to play. Justin had only played at the kitchen table level so when we started playing he noticed the difference right away and was eager to learn high level Magic skill and to analyze game strategy and mechanics in general. He absorbed it all like a sponge and is now one of the top players on the Coast and often wins the limited tournaments here.
We also discovered our common passion for game creation. Over the years he had designed many board, card and role playing games for use with his friends and family, but he never thought that there could be an actual, rewarding business in it. This was what I was up to, and desperately needed a sharp, motivated, game & business savvy individual to work with. We quickly became best friends, scouted out GenCon in 2010 together and at one point even lived right next door to each other only a few minutes walk from Sid’s Vids! This was the time when the most heavy development for Symetra and the Wizard’s Workshops took place.
We created the Wizard’s Workshop series to train local players in competitive Magic. When I first moved to the Sunshine Coast and started gathering players for tournaments, I rarely lost a single game (never mind a match) for a very long time. I recognized this distinct gap in skill and experience because this is how it was for me when I first started playing against pro Magic players at Mishra’s Game Factory back in the day. Thankfully, they were nice enough to teach me (mostly with blunt beats) how to improve my game. So, in order to get everyone up to snuff, I created three, five-hour workshops designed to teach a player all the basics of solid Magic, and introduce them to the advanced concepts of deckbuilding and high-level play. The three workshops are: Apprentice, Planeswalker & Limited. These are also the subject of articles I am writing for Gamerati.
In the Apprentice workshop we go over the mathematical foundation of Magic, deck archetypes and how they win, how to layout your deck and analyze it by curve and card function, mana base building no matter how complicated the deck, parts of a turn, timing of fast effects, and archetype vs archetype strategies.
In the Planeswalker workshop we prepare players for high-level play by showing them how to find and analyze metagames, create gauntlets to test against, creating efficient 4-in-1 full proxy decks, detailed sideboarding, mulligans, and multi-level thinking.
In the Limited workshop we approach many of the same subjects from the sealed deck and drafting point of view. We take a look at limited deck archetypes, card evaluation using the B.R.E.A.D.S. system, how to sort and build a 40-card limited deck, drafting tactics and techniques, sideboarding, and splashing colours.
We started running the Wizard’s Workshops and more tournaments and the attendance, skill level and fun grew very quickly. It was a treat to watch the fledgling wizards grow as players, friends and generally cool people! The creation and unfolding of the Magic community on the Coast has been extremely rewarding for both Justin and I, and the many gamers who have been introduced to many friends, groups and events they would have otherwise missed.
A lot of the players who met through the Magic community here have gone on to become great friends outside of gaming. Many of these friends are also playtesters for Game Point Games including best friend/co-designer/game-event-organizer Justin French. One of the players who first took the Wizard’s Workshop, Josh Diamond (MajicRare on MtGO), after putting in the time and effort that I never did, won a huge online PTQ and attended PT Seattle where he did pretty well for a 17 year old attending his first Pro Tour. It was also Josh’s mother who, upon hearing that I was going rent a room in a shared house nearby, offered me her entire, two-story, private studio on the waterfront to rent for the same price! That’s where I live now and where a lot of the gaming Magic takes place.
After working hard with the gaming community on the Sunshine Coast Game Point completed Symetra and we started taking the prototypes to conventions and stores, generating interest and feedback that resulted in a successful Kickstarter and print run ofSymetra. None of this would’ve been possible without the Magic of games and the friends that came with them.
So although I didn’t get a box of Beta or make money playing Magic professionally (yet), I did receive great abundance through being involved with the game and I wouldn’t give up the path I took for anything. All the great friends, leading to places, leading to more friends and teachers and opportunities, culminating with a game development team in an office overlooking the ocean is absolutely priceless.
So I would like to sincerely say “Thanks Magic (and all its creators and fellow players) for the great gaming life you have brought to me,”
Learn more about Brad on his bio page at the Game Point website.