An Unforgettable Audience with Larry Lord of Elves

Larry Liu, Singapore MTG player, lover of Elf decks

An Unforgettable Audience with Larry Lord of Elves

You might know him as the guy who plays Elves, but how many truly know how Larry Liu became so pointy-eared? I certainly didn’t, and It was one of the hot topics for a TGIF afternoon.

I was eager to get into it, but the watch hands showed 45 minutes past 1:30pm, our prearranged meeting time. Larry strolled in with his trademark swagger and wide grin that quickly called for complete forgiveness. I made a mental note to bring up the question of tardiness.

We’d only met a few times to my memory, mostly during Standard events at local game store (LGS) MTG-Asia. Testament to his compassionate nature, Larry swiftly corrected me that our first meeting was at Bricksplay – he even remembered the deck I was playing (Mono-Green Ghalta). Considering I’ve only ever played at Bricksplay once in my life, it was amazing he remembered such a minor detail.

The Shoebox

Larry’s first foray into MTG started like fairy tale, but ended up pretty much in tragedy (at least in monetary terms).

It was decades ago – 1994, the golden age of Magic – when Larry was pulled into the game with two other secondary school friends. Dungeons and Dragons had already been a thing, but then these cards with five different colours started to draw their attention. For the next few years, until his O-Level examinations in 1997, he bought a bunch of cards (not that much, he insisted) that filled up a standard shoe box.

“I regretfully remember the day when I took that shoebox with cards that shall not be mentioned and threw it away at my void deck.” Apparently, there were lots of Beta cards but I dared not ask which ones. (Beta cards are now all very valuable, even Commons)

My Azorius flyers MTG deck against Larry's Elves deck.
Pitting my Blue White Flyers against Larry’s Elf deck.

Mixing Magic and Money

Like for many of us, real life took over after Larry threw away that old shoebox. More school, work, and subsequently other hobbies emerged into the forefront of Larry’s life. Basketball was one, but it was dancing that steered him towards an actual business. He started his very own Natasha Studio, a sizeable space at City Square Mall, with 2 rooms and him as instructor/owner.

Then in 2011, he spotted several of his students playing Magic. The hook was sunk, and together with around 10 of his students, Larry attended his first Prerelease event in over 10 years. Magic was creeping back into his life, so why not combine two of his biggest passions?

The next year, he teamed up with MTG-Asia to create an affiliate game store called NTS Magic. The space still functioned primarily as a dance studio, but thanks to the large floor area, even the smaller of his 2 rooms could comfortably fit 30 players for a Friday night event. For bigger events, they could even expand to space for 50 players. Wizards of the Coast, the owners of Magic, wanted more advertising presence from the studio, but the goal was to keep the studio focused on dancing, and the high turnout for events ensured his store remained officially endorsed.

NTS Magic shared the space within a dance studio. Source: Facebook

The fact that Larry once ran a local game store was a complete revelation to me. So why hadn’t I heard of it?

Fast forward to 2016, and NTS Magic had made a good run holding events and introducing new people to the game. But unfortunately it didn’t bring in enough money, even though it didn’t bother Larry much. “I was just running the events for fun, not for profit. We made $5-20 bucks a night which didn’t cover our overhead [costs].” He further elaborated that stores don’t have a big profit margin when selling Draft Booster boxes of new Standard sets, and only scaling up of product sales and events would make the store profitable.

“I never looked at it as a business. It was always a fun thing, when the decision time arrived, in terms of business it was a must [to close the shop]. As a passion, I can take it somewhere else.”

“The business of Magic wasn’t good, for anyone,” said Larry. “It took a lot of effort to break even.” Newer shops were pushing hard on the social media front, and some of that paid off. It helped to create a sense of belonging with their loyal players. Other stores, such as Summoner’s in the Somerset shopping belt, eventually closed down, following the same tragic path as NTS Magic.

The Coming of the Elves

NTS Magic did have one good outcome – it started Larry on the path to playing Elves, it just took a jolt from an unlikely source.

It was 2015 and many players were still coming to Larry’s store, some suggested he take part in Grand Prix Singapore and play the Modern format. He had been a dedicated Grixis (Blue-Black-Red) Control player, flirting with the likes of Nicol Bolas, the biggest baddie in the MTG universe. A friend introduced the Amulet Bloom deck, while another whisked out the idea of a Green-Black Elves deck. He took both for play testing and just couldn’t click with Amulet Bloom.

On the night before Day 1 of the Grand Prix, “a very elderly, sage-looking man with a bag” came up to Larry. The old man berated: “why are you running Green and Black Elves, you’re polluting them!”

Llanowar Elves is a mainstay of Elf decks
“Llanowar Elves” by Chris Rahn

That same old man rummaged through his bag, pulled out his Mono-Green Elves deck and offered to play some games. After going 10 consecutive losses, Larry called up everyone that night to say he was changing his deck. He went on to clock a 8-1 win-loss record on the first day, dropping out later on the second day for personal reasons. He never saw that old man again.

“Different people play Magic for different reasons. Some play for art, some play for friends, some play for prizes. I play elves not because I love, love, love Elves but because every set has some [Elves], and I can build something that nobody else has.” Well, it also turned out that Larry’s first character in Dungeons and Dragons was an Elf. With the newest set Kaldheim featuring strong Elves trival synergies, Larry has already prepared his next iteration of Elves for the next Standard event.

Can Magic be Magical for Everyone?

In close to 3 decades of being in and out of Magic, Larry feels the community has changed a lot. “Magic used to be a gathering thing, long time ago. Literally just friends coming together – kitchen top Magic.”

While he carried forth the same mentality when he returned in 2011, he came across players who were a lot more competitive. There were players cutely labeled as “farmers,” who would run around to different game stores to grind for DCI points. These points allowed players to earn multiple byes in big tournaments.

Within a couple of years, Larry was sucked into the same vortex. On an average year, traveling to 3-4 international events was not out of the ordinary. He would travel alone, but everywhere he went, there were surely some Singaporean players there.  “You go to Taiwan, hey there are 50 of us here. You go to Malaysia, half are Singaporean!”

To Larry, the spread of social media and the Internet has changed the nature of Magic’s community. The ‘gathering’ factor has been reduced, and net-decking – posting and referring to online deck lists – has become more relevant because players are now able to show off their deck builds. Wizards’ beloved brainchild, online platform Arena, has helped to figure out new meta decks very quickly. Even the old MTG Online software hasn’t been as quick, Larry reckons.

Larry Liu, Singapore MTG player known for playing Elves

Thankfully, there is some light beyond the gloom. “The community has matured through the years, but it’s also diversified the range of players,” Larry adds, referring to the recent reprinting of many old cards through the Double Masters and Commander Legends sets. The Secret Lair series has also given players direct access to buy cheaper versions of well-known cards, while exposing Magic to other fans by doing crossovers with the Walking Dead and Godzilla franchises.

But will Magic ever be a household name like Pokemon?

“A friend asked me ‘does it have a movie, or a TV series?’ One main difference between Pokemon and MTG is that MTG happens over many different worlds and many different narratives. It’s all over the place.” Larry argues that over the game’s 28-year history, many audiences (ourselves included) have come in and dropped out.

Larry reminded me that players love the game for different reasons, and there’s no one storyline that everyone can relate to. Contrast that to Pokemon, where even I, as a complete outsider of the franchise, know that it’s about a boy who throws balls to win fights with little cute monsters. Everyone knows Pikachu, but mention Chandra (a MTG Planeswalker) and you’ll probably get plenty of blank stares.

Through The Sorcerer’s Spyglass

Listening to Larry, I surmised that fun is the name of the game now. He’s since sold off his dance studio, and now dabbles in many different things, one of which was being a part-time Financial Advisor for a big insurance firm in Singapore. It even led to a full-time position but he realised that colleagues and even supervisors started to treat him differently, mostly in a negative way. For now, he’s with a government stat-board, helping them on the Covid-19 frontlines.

During Singapore’s Circuit Breaker lockdown at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, Larry gravitated back toward MTG Arena despite being initially turned off by it. For 2 months, he live-streamed his games, and made Mythic rank within 2 weeks with a Mono-White weenie deck. “It was an amateurish thing, but I had fun. I didn’t even have a webcam, I used an old phone and that was my webcam.”

Larry Liu streamed MTG Arena games during the Covid-19 lockdown.
For 2 months during Singapore’s Circuit Breaker lockdown, Larry went back to Arena and streamed his road to Mythic Rank

His 2006 laptop would often crash after an hour of gaming, and it caused so much lag in his streams that he stopped speaking on camera after a while, deciding to go with background dance music. While there’s always a chance he will go back to streaming, he admitted MTG Arena doesn’t get as much attention as other games.

The day was getting late, and Larry had a basketball appointment that I didn’t want to hold him back from and create unrest with his pals. But there was something at the back of my head that I missed, a question I had desperately wanted to ask.

Days after we had met, I asked him about his reputation for being late. In the many years of Magic, not being punctual has caused a number of unsavoury encounters with other players. He was stumped for a moment, maybe because no one has ever asked him. “That’s me always pushing the public transport timings too tightly,” Larry answered sheepishly. “Other than that, I don’t have any legitimate reason why I’m unfashionably late.”

After playing from Tempest to Urza's Saga block, Ted took a 20 year break from the game before returning to the classic Plane of Dominaria in 2018. His favourite formats are Commander, Draft, and, grudgingly, Standard.

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