his year was the second annual voyage of the Magic Cruise, on the immense Carnival Freedom. The Magic Cruise departs from port and sets sail to beautiful vacation spots, loaded with gamers ready to have a good time. If you love Magic and you love traveling and you love having fun, then you are missing out if you aren't onboard. And I didn't want to miss out!
I met up with my college buddy and soon-to-be-roommate Mick in San Francisco. We flew overnight to sunny Ft. Lauderdale and dozed fitfully in port waiting for the Freedom to load. I had my Standard decks, my EDH decks, and tons of booster packs, as well as a plethora of bathing suits, sunscreen and waterproof cameras. I was ready. Last year's cruise was awesome, but this year I was going to take it to a whole new level. The Caribbean level.
Upon boarding the boat, we were shuffled into the scenic elevator (the one that overlooks the main atrium) and up to the Lido deck, traditional location of the set-sail party. The party was already in progress: delicious food, the Carnival Fun Ship drink special, and tons of entertainment, including a big screen TV (repurposed later that evening for a ship Super Bowl Party) and many hot tubs and pools.
As more passengers made their way from the port to the ship, I started to see some faces I recognized ... Magic players! Steve Port and Lindsey Kary Port, tournament organizers and Magic Cruise creators, boarded in their bright green Magic Cruise 2 t-shirts and waved me over. We caught up a bit and they reminded me of the cruise group introduction and welcome in one of the mid-ship conference rooms around 6 p.m.
Mick was still recovering from sickness, so he opted to nap after we were able to get into our stateroom. I decided I would wander, so I trekked around the various restaurants and bars on the ship. As the time for the group welcoming approached, I found a bunch of Magic players had commandeered a bar for dueling. Among them were Dwayne, Zaiem, and Hollie—friends from back in Seattle—but they seemed locked into Standard testing for the Cruise Championship tournament scheduled later in the cruise. I met Gary, Jeremy, and Alan and sat down with my gunslinging Allies deck in a free-for-all battle.
Unfortunately for me, my draw was pretty absurd ... but not quite absurd enough to kill everyone. They rightfully ganged up on me, and after I perished, I wandered over to the conference room and observed videographer Evan Erwin cube drafting for a bit. Others trickled in, and Steve handed out tournament schedules. After some quick introductions, we broke up into two groups: a line of people picking up product orders (from Steve and Lindsey), and a mob of people looking to draft.
I loitered for a bit in the conference room, hoping another Cube Draft would start, until Alan, one of the casual gamers I had played with earlier, and co-worker Kenneth Nagle approached me with a proposition:
"Urza's Saga Sealed?"
Alan and his bounty of sealed Urza’s Saga packs
How could I refuse? We found a fourth—none other than Evan Erwin—and started a retro Sealed release event. Alan had been hoarding old product for a while, and what better time to open it than the Magic Cruise, where he could get extra Limited play value out of it? I found a one-megaton warhead in my pool—Phyrexian Processor—and a solid white-blue base. It was decided that we would battle round robin, which made the remainder of my deck easy to fill out: all five of the common Runes of Protection! My deck ground out the full 3-0 against the other three competitors, and each game in my match against Ken was won by Phyrexian Processor—he won the game he Confiscated it, but I crushed him with it in the other two.
For my efforts, I won a Chronicles pack and an Urza's Saga pack. Satisfied, I headed back to the room and konked out, ready for a day of excursion in the morning.
Although Florida is like many other coastal states, Key West is more like Hawaii—a breezy, laid-back place, green and blue and pleasant. Our excursion didn't leave until 11 a.m., so there was plenty of time to sleep in and grab breakfast up in the large restaurant on Lido. Mick and I joined a number of other Magic cruisers and awaited a brief orientation. Our guide Captain Ron, a curmudgeonly old timer, introduced himself and promised us a fine tour of Key West's pubs and restaurants throughout the afternoon.
At our first stop, there was a bit of local color and music all in one, a man we dubbed "guy on guitar trying to imitate Jimmy Buffet." A few drinks and stops later, I had met some cool new folks while getting reacquainted with others, all originally from the Wisconsin area (Steve and Lindsey's neck of the woods): Bryan, Amanda, Dan, Danner, and Alayna. These folks, along with roommate Mick and professional troublemaker Patrick Chapin, became the core group of friends with whom I made non-Magical mischief later in the cruise.
Key West was quite beautiful, but once the tour was over, I was overcome with an insistent urge to nap. I retired to the room, grabbed a few hours of shut-eye, then went to dinner. Dinner on a Magic Cruise is a special treat—not only are you waited on hand and foot, but you are seated with other gamers (from among our group) and can roam about freely when necessary to socialize more. Also the wait staff sings and dances on some nights, so there's that too.
Organizers Steve Port and Lindsey Kary Port enjoy lavish dining.
Our dinner was late (starting after 8 p.m.), which was a bit annoying since I was often very hungry from excursions. On the night of Key West dinner, we stole Zaiem and Hollie from another table. They had been absent watching the Super Bowl the previous evening, so they were looking for a cool crew with whom to eat, and we fit the bill!
After dinner, I made it back to the conference room in time for the Sealed portion of the Cruise Championship. Although I couldn't play (curse my employee status and ineligibility for sanctioned events!), I did build a Sealed Deck anyway and sat down at an empty table to play against anyone who wanted to. Another Seattle-area player, Gahan, was ready to battle ... but preferred some casual constructed rather than Sealed. I was happy to oblige, with my Ally deck again. In one-on-one versus opponents with little removal, the deck can do pretty absurd things. See: Exhibit A (for Ally).
I later battled sealed using the blue-black deck I had built, which featured the twin bombs of Anowon, the Ruin Sage and Vapor Snare. My plan to steal my opponent's vampire holdouts finally came to fruition when I took a Butcher of Malakir. Anowon did the rest, and I remained unscatched in gunslinging matches.
Happy with my evening of Magic, I retired around midnight.
Day at Sea, Part 1
Folk were already battling out the Launch Party tournament for Worldwake in the conference room when I arrived after brunch, so I sat to the side and watched for a while. Soon enough, I made my way back to the front table where I found Amanda and Lindsey looking for things to do. The three of us decided on the (non-gaming-related) art auction happening later that afternoon upstairs, which sounded pretty classy. Since this was one of our formal dinner nights, I decided I would rock the suit earlier rather than later—after all, if they are planning on serving champagne at the art auction, the least I could do in return was sip it in style!
The art auction was oddly constructed. The first half hour or so was entirely people telling staff which pieces of art interested them, and the latter portion was a combination bidding and video special, wherein short documentaries on artists would be shown after art was brought to the stage. We were not particularly impressed with a large portion of the art. Some of the more humorous pieces were good but not worth taking to auction, and a bunch of the classic portraits and still lifes were done a disservice due to their cruddy frames and matting. After nabbing some champagne, we left.
Goofing off with Patrick Chapin. Good times.
The evening brought formal dinner, which was both debonair and delicious. Immediately afterward came the Standard portion of the Cruise Championship, which I watched until some folks decided to wander out into the adjacent bar. Many shared stories and good times later, and it was off to bed, due to a crazy early excursion in our next destination.
I was up and showered when I heard the announcement over the intercom: the Captain had decided that we would need to leave port at 2 p.m. rather than the previously expected 4 p.m., due to tropical storms on the horizon. That worked fine for Mick and I, departing on one of the shuttle boats (tenderboats) for our separate excursions before 9 a.m., but I was a tad worried for our less awake friends of the previous evening, who had mentioned an 11 a.m. departure for parasailing. It worked out okay for everyone, though, as the staff of the cruise and the island-based excursion folks got everyone back on time.
Mick went off to hang with stingrays and dolphins, which sounded pretty great, but I was set on my personal adventure in scuba diving. Last year, for the Magic Cruise at our Cozumel stop, I did snorkeling for the first time with Bill and Jess, and I was ready for an upgrade to more mobility and excitement in the deep. The plan was simple: a half-hour instructional lecture on the various flora, fauna, and dangers of the Caribbean waters, then a practice session in the pool, and then the dive itself, down to no deeper than 40 feet. I was on the edge of my seat during the lecture, confident that I would be pushing the limit at the bottom in no time.
As it turns out, that wasn't exactly the adventure I received.
In the pool, when we were training to show you are capable of handling various situations underwater, our instructor Moke told us we were going to do a regulator retrieval. Your regulator is the mouthpiece through which you get the air in the tank on your back. We dunked under the water, and he got our attention. Then, with deliberate precision, he removed his breathing regulator, pushed it back over his shoulder, motioned to the tank and found the tube, then returned it to his mouth.
Now you, he motioned, pointing at me.
No problem, I thought. Just had to keep my wits about me, I assured myself. I took some breaths to calm my understandably frayed nerves, and removed the breather.
YOU CAN'T BREATHE THIS IS NOT A DRILL YOU ARE DROWNING, my mind screamed, and I gasped. Immediately I surfaced in the 4 feet of pool, and Moke followed me up. "You need to relax," he said, and I couldn't agree more. This went on a few more times, as I just could not get my body to ignore the drown-warning. Finally, Moke recommended I hum a bit to calm myself and to get a steady stream of bubbles going (a way to prevent oneself from trying to exhale/inhale fast)—and it worked! A few drills with the flippers later, and we were off to the dive.
I stayed near to the surface ... just in case. But even so, the visibility was remarkable. My favorite part of the dive, other than not actually drowning, was Moke indicating various fish using hand signals (he had gone over a bunch of signals before the dive) and then getting extremely excited by a "Christmas Tree Worm," a sponge-like critter on a rock of coral and just pointing giddily rather than devise an entirely new hand signal on the spot for us.
On the way back to the boat, I had lunch at a local diner that offered up a turtle burger. I would not personally recommend it, although the seasoned fries and plantains were both extremely good. I took the tenderboat back over to the Freedom, and as boats rocked back and forth in relatively calm seas, I understood why the Captain had decided to push the timetable up.
I ran into many of the Madison folk on the ship after boarding, including Steve, Danner, and head judge Chris, all looking to draft. We commandeered the ship's library, which had a sweet table for our three-on-three. After I was crushed by Dwayne's ridiculous Ally deck, I had a chat with the ship's librarian, who was asking us about the game. We offered to donate our commons, uncommons, and some land to the game library she maintained—so you never know, passengers on the Carnival Freedom from now on might be introduced to Magic!
Later that evening, I found some folk who were up for a Cube Draft. My exciting blue-black-red concoction with Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker and about a thousand other big spells ran into Nick and his multiple Armageddon effects. Definitely wasn't winning that one. After getting crushed by Alan, Dwayne's father, and his mono-red Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle deck (a totally sweet archetype I have not faced before in Cube), I was mostly done.
Going 0-6 in matches usually means I am ready for a short break from Magic, so I skipped the Two-Headed Giant tournament that evening, although I overheard talk of the Ricochet Trap Heard Round the World, which I heard got a Vastwood Zendikon. Yikes!
That evening, I did some karaoke in one of the ship's lounges along with Roberto, Erica, Amanda, and Mick. I sang quite a stirring rendition of Matchbox Twenty's "3AM," and everyone else except Roberto refused to perform after that! We left that scene shortly thereafter and agreed that the next night's mischief would have to take it to the next level. Little did we know that that was exactly what our absentee compatriot Patrick, still locked in Two-Headed battling, had in mind.
Ocho Rios, Jamaica
When the loudspeaker outside our cabin buzzed something about a late arrival in Jamaica, I plopped right back down into bed. Finally, when I was able to get up and ready for the excursion into the Jamaican forest canopy for the day, I left too quickly to realize I had forgotten my towel. Running up and down stairs to rectify my forgetfulness wasn't the way I was planning to spend the morning, but finally we made it to the bus and made our way to the day's activity: zip line and river tubing.
The road up to the activities center got narrower and narrower as we moved up the cliffs. Despite a few close calls, we made it safe and sound and prepared to make it part of the way back down in a zippier fashion. We lined up to strap on gear. Although the various pieces were awkward, they weren't as awkward as the breathing tank from the previous day. After a brief safety talk, the Jamaican crew led us up to the first jump-off point. I was fifth in line, and I made sure to yell my head off as I reached what I can only assume was a thousand miles an hour or so. After narrowly avoiding the tree on the next platform, the next few stretches of line were pretty mundane.
We then reentered our bus and took a quick trip up to the river tubing site. Mick and I led the entire crew through a bit of pleasant current while we attempted to avoid listening to our guide's terrible jokes. Soon enough, we reached some more rapid water and broke off from our chain-of-tubes into individual thrill seekers. I had a great time, retaining my unflipped status throughout the river ride, and even dunking for a swim on purpose in one area to cool off.
Since we started late, Mick and I barely had time to pick up some pictures the staff snapped of us before we were back on the bus and headed back to ship. The night held a number of activities: another formal dress dinner, the Top 8 of the Cruise Championship, and what can only be described as "piratical activities." Mick, Amanda, Patrick and I all went exploring various bars and lounges on the boat, and then moved out onto the deck where high winds made conversation difficult. We ended up wandering around a couple of crew-only areas before we went back inside and headed over to the dance club. Many hours into the morning later, I crashed into bed.
Last Day at Sea, Back to Shore
Last year's Magic Cruise had a full-fledged Pro Tour Qualifier on it, but since the primary draw to this vacation-tournament experience is the vacation part, Steve and Lindsey decided it would be best to keep the stakes a little lower. Hence, the last day's tournament was a generic Grand Prix Trial instead. I overslept a bit due to our late night dance-a-thon, but arrived in time to see some Standard battles. Just before the cut to Top 8, we lost use of the conference room we had been using for games, so we all migrated to the secret upper level of the restaurant on Lido deck.
I joined two successive Cube drafts while hanging out around the Standard players. In the first, I drafted a weird Zoo-like concoction, and in the second, I had thirteen nonbasic lands and all the colors. I even picked and played Progenitus, which granted me vengeance in my match against Nick (who had previously Armageddoned me to death), where the Hydra Avatar's protection from Maze of Ith finally allowed me to deal 20 damage.
When the finals for the GPT were complete, everyone breathed a collective sigh. Although drafts would continue late into the night, the burden of running tournaments was off the shoulders of the Madison crew, and they were ready to unwind. A bunch of us went to the hot tub before dinner, wherein Seattle friend Peter, his brother John, and New England residents Brian and Melissa all pledged to return on next year's Magic Cruise. I just smiled and nodded. I knew I'd be back for the next voyage too.
It could have been a bittersweet night, since we all knew the next morning meant leaving for our various corners of the country. But nobody let it get them down—we once again danced and partied our way through the evening! I must have spent only two or three hours sleeping before I left the boat and boarded my plane back home the next morning, but it was definitely worth it.
All of that, and I didn't even mention Patrick's heartbreaking second place in the Michael Jackson Dance Off, the one-upmanship of girly drinks at dinner, the entire Magic Cruise group storming the stage for a final rendition of Backstreet Boys in karaoke, or the delicious meals themselves throughout the cruise! Each year, after the cruise, I have left with a huge number of new friends—and due to the time and closeness of the cruise, we'll actually keep in touch and see each other at various Magic events over the course of the year.
Whenever I see a cruise buddy in the course of regular, non-Cruise life, I stop and smile, because I know in a few short months I'll be off again on another great vacation, really defined by the intersection of gamers and getaway—otherwise known as the Magic Cruise.