Cut from a different cloth

No one used gloves while playing Risk. No one laminated or graded D&D-books. No one used plastic sleeves for their Civilization cards.

Magic was one of the first games of its kind, the first of what was called collectible games. And it was literally touch and go for a while. Even in The Duelist, it was suggested that you could tape your cards to a wall to battle Chaos Orb. If you didn't use sleeves for your "Draw 4s" in Uno, why would you use it for your "Draw 3" in Magic? The early cards got sticky and beat up by being roughly played on dirty tables in bars, schools, and kitchens. Today, almost everyone plays with some protective measures to avoid marking the cards and to expand their lifespan. What we all see as a natural part of the game today, started on a dirty table in a coffee shop in San Francisco.

Between the 2-16 August 1993, WotC founder Peter Adkinson and his wife travelled through the western US to run demos of Magic in a few local game stores. This tour started before the general release of Alpha, and two weeks after the game was first showed at Origins in July. An avid gamer named Japji Khalsa was introduced to the game the day after a local tour stop, and after a great first impression, he used the 'tour t-shirt' to see where the next stop was. He called the store on the shirt the day of the demo, and ordered his first starter box of Alpha over the phone.

Japji and his friends started playing in a coffee shop in Haight Ashbury called the Coffee Zone. This was in the wild west of Magic, before anyone could fathom that a BGS 10 Alpha Wooden Sphere would sell for over $3k 20 years later, or that trading Moxen for Craw Wurms could be a bad idea. What Japji did know however, was that his cards got really sticky, and he didn't like sticky cards. He went to a nearby fabric store and bought a nice looking piece of cloth which he placed on the tables before playing with his cards. One of his friends in the local playgroup, Jeff Brain, suggested he could do some art for the mat, which Japji thought was a great idea. So began the partnership of Khalsa and Brain, and the dawn of Khalsa-Brain Games.

Khalsa-Brain is a name that probably rings familiar to the veterans of the Vintage community and the more hardcore of collectors. Many players are still unfamiliar with their products and history though, and naturally thinks of a playmat as something akin to a very large mouse pad. I'm personally not much of fan of play mats, but I still went on a quest looking for a reasonably priced Khalsa-Brain Spellground Elite mat on ebay for well over a year. The Khalsa-Brain mats aren't just mats anymore, they are close to the pinnacle of what some players refer to as "subtle pimp". The mats are usually made in the hundreds or less, not the thousands, and will literally last you for decades (and I'm the kind of guy who uses "literally" correctly). They are made to be used, and it is a special feeling to cast your cards on one. To make a beer analogy, these are not your Sierra Nevadas or Sam Adams, these are your Westvleterens or Närkes. These are craft mats with a history.

The 1994 Spellground Elite
Japji Khalsa and Jeff Brain first brought their mats to their favorite convention, Dundracon, in February 1994. For this occasion, they had made 100 mats to sell. It was a new concept, and they had no idea if there actually existed a market for play mats. In order to sweeten the deal, they offered a free booster of the newly released Arabian Nights with the purchase of each mat. By the end of the weekend, they had sold out. It was a success, and Khalsa-Brain entered the hobby game market as the top (and initially only) manufacturer of play mats. Japji and Jeff were joining trade shows, visiting conventions, and in 1996 they became the first official producers for Magic play mats. Apart from the classic official mat, they made mats for the Magic World Championships between 1996 and 2001. Khalsa and Brain went on to make large impacts in other parts of the gaming community, including starting a local CCG convention called ManaFest. In 2000, the name was changed to KublaCon, and today it is the largest gaming convention on the North American West Coast, occurring annually on Memorial Day Weekend in the San Francisco Bay Area. They also produced the only authorized 3rd party Magic expansion, but that's a topic for another week ;)

Japji Khalsa
So which mat is the "ultimate" Khalsa-Brain mat? Well, my personal favorite of the "mass-produced" (with pretty big quotation marks) is the 1994 Spellground Elite. Some would say the official single-player Magic mat, or the 2-Player Spellground mat, but there is no clear consensus. It is very much in the eye of the beholder. Is there a mat in particular Japji Khalsa himself is especially proud of, and if he still plays himself, which mat would he use? Well, the internet is awesome, and the gaming community is friendly, and I got the chance to get an answer directly from the source :)

"I'd say I'm especially proud of some of the World's Qualifier mats we did for Wizards of the Coast. Those mats were multi-colored and required a LOT of extra work to pull them off.  Fortunately, WOTC was happy to pay the extra dollars to make those happen. I'd say the 2001 Toronto, Canada mat was my favorite. As a side... I was also very proud of the official Magic: The Gathering Single Player play mat. That required a LOT of art direction to incorporate many of the iconic images from Magic at the Time... And to put them into a nice layout that worked."

The Worlds 2001 mat
Of course, when I had the opportunity, I really wanted to know what happened to the first mat. Was it even true that the first mat was hand painted by Brain? Does it still exist? Turns out that "the ultimate play mat" is actually a table!

"One of my early personal mats was altered by Jeff Brain. Mostly, he colorized the various elements by hand... Not really altering the images per-se. This particular mat had an interesting future.  Because we often played at very crowded coffee shops, it was sometimes difficult to get a table.  My neighborhood in San Francisco often has various sidewalk sales, and on one occasion I spotted an 'old' folding table that was almost exactly the size of the mat.  (A SMALL folding table!)  I ended up covering the table  with the mat, an almost exact fit, and trimming the edges with gold fabric trim.  This became the table that I would bring to coffee shops for Magic... And I was never short of finding a table to play on!"

This "table mat" is currently in a storage room, and Japji states that he has considered selling it as he doesn't play that much CCGs anymore. If he puts it up on ebay, I'll be sure to post some info about it here. If anyone comes to an old school tournament with this folding table as their play area, that person would pretty much win by default :) I truly hope that the player who gets this table next will use it, and not let it gather dust or simply try and make a profit out of it.

Freespace's 1999 Magic mat, with alterations by Matt Cavotta (left) and rk Post (right).
After some time, Jeff Brain left the company on good terms. This is marked in the mats with a small change in the company name, the dash in "Khalsa-Brain" was removed, and the later version of the mats instead uses the name "Khalsa Brain". (Many re-sellers on ebay claim to have earliest mats, but be sure to look for the dash if age is important to you). The business is still family run, by Japji and his wife, occasionally assisted by a few friends. They have started to produce mats again after some years of the grid. These mats have the classic old motive, and whenever they have a new batch ready, you can find them at or at Khalsa Brain's ebay store. As far as the older mats go, they can most easily be found via ebay (and patience).

A 2011 mat with the Spellground 2-player artwork.
 I realize that mid-90s Khalsa-Brain mats are pretty deep as far as subcultures go. Magic itself is something of a subculture, and Old School Magic is a subculture of that. Old School apparel for Old School Magic is pretty close to the deep end, but I hope that the readers of this blog are the correct audience for these kind of things ;) If you are the kind of person who wants to play with Icy Manipulator from Alpha because that one has the nicest font, then you definitely want to keep a look out for the Khalsa-Brain mats. They will last you for as long as you play.


  1. Hi, does anyone know if there is an online scene for discussing decks in 93' 94' magic? I have found in the past a thread on MTG Salvation. If anyone wants to play the format on Cockatrice, you can message me on MTG Salvation, my username is Klinscy.


    1. Hi!
      There's an active forum at, but that one is in swedish (if anyone speaks swedish and wants to join, create a user at svenskamagic and feel free to PM me to get an invite to the forum). However, a reader started a subreddit on 93/94 just this week to get some discussions going. You can check it out at

  2. Very nice blog post. I'm Jeff Brain, the one you mention in the post, and you deserve plaudits for your astute writing. I still play magic, and go to KublaCon where I always enjoy seeing Japji. Now, my twin boys are 16, and they both play MtG, on old school Spellgrounds.

    1. Wow, thanks a lot! I'm happy to hear that you liked the post, and nice to hear that you guys still hang out :)

  3. Loved this article. I had LITERALLY JUST thought about getting a mat for my cards. I thought there had to be some old school mats out there. They are old enough for me to care about condition, but not worth enough for me to need sleeves. A mat would be nice. Especially if I am wanting to gather some Beta and UL cards... I then read this. Thank you so much. I love your posts.



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