Blog Fanatic: Adventures in Urza Block (Part 1 of 2)

The highlight of the weekend, and one of the highlights of my Magic playing career, came on the Sunday after the Pro Tour ended. We arranged a four-on-four draft between some Texan/Lousiana players versus a Pro Tour ringer team which included Jon Finkel, Brian Hacker, Hammer, and one of Brian’s regular draft partners.

I’m a much better drafter than I am a Constructed player. This fact is completely ironic, given that I’ve qualified four times for a Constructed Pro Tours through PTQ’s and Grand Prix, and yet I’ve never managed to qualify for a Limited Pro Tour through anything less than an invitation. My highest finish was at Pro Tour Mainz, where I finished in 24th place. The finish belies my performance, as I was in the top eight going into the final draft, and I simply fell apart in the last draft. Regardless of official performances, my pinnacle as a Magic player during the”old” days came during the year of Urza block.

Urza’s Saga was released in October of 1998. My friend Whitney and I drove from New Orleans to Baton Rouge for the Urza’s Saga prerelease on September 26th. Tim Weissman had decided to run his Louisiana tournament outside of New Orleans for the first time ever, and this was also the first tournament which featured a foil pre-release card – Lightning Dragon. Whitney and I both were doing quite well in the tournament when security came into the prerelease room to make an announcement: Hurricane Georges had shifted course and was now headed towards the New Orleans area. If anyone was from the New Orleans area, you had to leave immediately because the area was being put under a state of emergency and all the roads were about to be closed.

On one hand, I had a 4-0 record when this announcement was made. Whitney’s family lived in Baton Rouge, though Whitney was a Tulane Student at the time so he lived in New Orleans. We could have stayed in Baton Rouge overnight, but we decided we didn’t want to be locked out of New Orleans for an untold amount of time. I explained the situation to Tim Weissman, who was nice enough to give me some packs as prize support, and we were on our way back to school.

The drive back to New Orleans was completely surreal. I-10 was completely backed up heading west from New Orleans to Baton Rouge. Our side of the road, heading east from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, was completely barren. We drove past stopped car after stopped car, waving our hands out the windows at the fleeing citizens of New Orleans and all points east. We made it back to New Orleans in record time, and waited out the hurricane at Anthony and Chris’s landlord’s house. Luckily, the hurricane just missed New Orleans, smashing Biloxi, Mississippi instead.

Comics Cosmos held the only serious Magic tournaments in New Orleans in 1998. I had taken a short break from Magic around the release of Exodus, but was raring to get back into the swing of things as Urza’s Saga neared release. I arranged to buy a full case of Urza’s Saga from Randy and Crystal, the store owners of Comics Cosmos. When the case arrived, I took it back to Tulane University, where Eric Lewandowski and I proceeded to draft the entire case doing one-on-one drafts over the course of three days. For those keeping track at home, that amounts to twelve best two-out-of-three drafts a day for three straight days. We did this so that we would be familiarized with the format. It worked. We came to the following conclusions (and please keep in mind that these points are all based on Saga/Saga/Saga draft – Legacy and Destiny hadn’t yet been released.)

Black was ridiculously overpowered in the format. There were so many Black first picks in the common and uncommon slots and so little chaff in the color that you could conceivably go mono-Black every draft and still win.

First Pick Commons: Befoul, Corrupt, Expunge, Pestilence

Good Playable Commons: Bog Raiders, Despondency, Duress, Hollow Dogs, Looming Shade, Phyrexian Ghoul, Ravenous Skirge, Sicken, Skittering Skirge, Unworthy Dead

Playable Commons: Blood Vassal, Breach, Cackling Fiend, Dark Ritual, Unnerve

Bad Commons: Carrion Beetles, Exhume

First Pick Uncommons: Diabolic Servitude, Vampiric Embrace, Vile Requiem

Good Playable Uncommons: Crazed Skirge, Flesh Reaver, Order of Yawgmoth, Sanguine Guard, Skirge Familiar, Spined Fluke, Victimize

Playable Uncommons: Bereavement, Mana Leech, No Rest For the Wicked, Parasitic Bond, Priest of Gix

Bad Uncommons: Planar Void, Rain of Filth, Reclusive Wight, Yawgmoth’s Edict

First Pick Rares: Eastern Paladin, Lurking Evil, Western Paladin, Yawgmoth’s Will

Good Playable Rares: Abyssal Horror, Ill-Gotten Gains, Persecute, Reprocess, Witch Engine

Playable Rares: Contamination, Discordant Dirge, Sleeper Agent, Vebulid

Bad Rares: Darkest Hour, Oppression, Tainted Aether

Blue was virtually unplayable in the format. There were virtually no quality Blue creatures in the common and uncommon slots, and it didn’t play well with any of the other colors except for White. Extrapolating this into a larger draft setting, this would mean that unless you were one of at most two Blue drafters at a table, your deck was going to suck.

Pestilence was by and far the best common in the set. The best uncommons in the set were the five embraces: Gaea’s Embrace, Serra’s Embrace, Vampiric Embrace, Zephid’s Embrace, and Shiv’s Embrace. There were a billion and a half broken rares in Urza’s Saga, though two stood head and shoulders above the others: Phyrexian Processor and Morphling. Opening Morphling, we felt, was the only reason you’d have to celebrate playing Blue.

We continued to practice Urza Saga draft with the Tulane crowd, making up our own packs of Urza’s Saga out of the case we had drafted. These drafts were always three-on-three team drafts, because we had a single purpose in mind: become better than anyone else in the world at money drafting, and then beat those players while they were participating at a Constructed Pro Tour. Because these players would be at a Constructed event, they wouldn’t have had as much time to practice Limited. This would allow me and several unknowns to come in and get a lot of draft action on the side – but we would be infinitely more prepared than those other players.

Eric Lewandowski (the author of Netdraft) and I had spent the last year on the road together playing Magic. He was my main partner in crime in the practice sessions between the release of Urza’s Saga and Pro Tour: Rome that November, but countless other Magic players in the New Orleans area were invaluable in playtesting. The Tulane crew included me, Eric, Proxy Jenkins, Whitney, Anthony and Chris DiNatale, Adam Sabrin (who has written a couple of articles for this very website), Jeremy, Khaled, "Big Jeff" Thacker, Metzick, Jeff Taylor, Kevin, Ian, and many other players who I am sure I am forgetting.

Jeff and I had both qualified for Pro Tour Rome, but we had a pretty dismal showing at the tournament – we had spent a lot of time playtesting Urza Saga draft, and didn’t spend nearly enough time building our Extended decks for the Pro Tour itself. We did play Tolarian Academy-based decks, but with suboptimal card choices such as Sapphire Medallion over Lotus Petal. Unfortunately, New York player Adam Katz showed up without a deck, and we somehow convinced him to play our version of Academy. He went 3-0, and then proceeded to get knocked out of the tournament. Those three wins were more than Jeff and I had combined in Rome.

Jeff and I were, however, prepared for the side events room. We got several drafts on over the weekend, with our two-person team going 8-0 in drafts. As predicted, we ran circles around our opponents – we both knew the entire common and uncommon print runs, so we knew every non-rare card our opponents ended up with. There were two other drafts I ran that weekend, one of which was a highlight of my career, and the other a lowlight.

Let’s start with the lowlight. This isn’t a moment I’m proud of, but it’s a story that needs to be told. Jeff decided to play in a PTQ, which I skipped. This left me without a draft partner for a while. Mike Pustilnik, a friend of mine from Neutral Ground, approached me to do a two on two draft with him as my partner. I asked him if he had any experience with the format, and he admitted that he was still learning it and hadn’t had much drafting practice. The alarms in my head said to politely decline, but instead I told him I’d draft with him if he followed three rules:

1) Force Black if possible.

2) Don’t draft Blue unless you open an absolute Blue bomb.

3) If you draft Blue, do not, under any circumstances, draft Blue/Green.

The draft itself did not go well – I put together a fairly mediocre deck, and was eager to see if Mike had fared any better. We sat down to help each other build decks, and I was horrified to see his pile of cards. He had, on his own volition, drafted a Blue/Green deck. The deck had a total of nine creatures. This was not nine playable creatures. This was a total of nine creatures. Half of these creatures had a power of one. His highlights included three Fortitude, triple Horseshoe Crab, and only a single Hermetic Study. His deck had no bombs – it was, without a doubt, the worst Urza Saga draft deck I had ever seen.

The actual play of the draft went poorly – Mike dropped his two and I won my two, but I lost in the tiebreaker match. After the loss, Mike asked if I would draft with him again. I wish I could say that I politely declined. I wish I could say that I went to cool off at that time and just got some food. Instead, I let loose a complete tirade of anger on poor Mikey P, who surely did not deserve the immensely immature rant that followed:

"Mike, **** no. You drafted the ****ing worst deck I’ve ****ing ever seen, Mike! You didn’t ****ing listen to a ****ing single ****ing thing I said, what are you an idiot? I told you three things: Force Black, don’t draft ****ing Blue, and ****ing under no ****ing circumstances draft Blue/Green! Then you go and to every mother****ing thing I ****ing tell you not the **** to do, and you can’t win a ****ing game! You are the worst ****ing drafter I’ve ever seen in my life!"

It took a year until Mike would talk to me again. I don’t blame him in the least. People make mistakes, and they shouldn’t be yelled at for stupid mistakes such as losing a small side draft. They certainly deserve to be treated one hundred times better than I treated Mike that day, especially given that Mike was a friend of mine! At the time, I wasn’t mature enough to understand how badly I had wronged Mike. In my head, he had wronged me by not listening to a word I had said. It became clear to me, as I related the stories to friends in New Orleans, that I had been a complete dick and there was no justification on earth for how I had treated Mike. I’m glad to say that Mike graciously accepted my apology a year later when I finally got up the courage to give him an apology (I had been too ashamed to talk to him in the couple of times I saw him over that year), and today we are on good terms once again. Then again, that may be because he constantly beats me in Backgammon.

The highlight of the weekend, and one of the highlights of my Magic playing career, came on the Sunday after the Pro Tour ended. We arranged a four-on-four draft between some Texan/Lousiana players versus a Pro Tour ringer team which included Jon Finkel, Brian Hacker, Hammer, and one of Brian’s regular draft partners (I forget, honestly, if it was John Yoo, Igor Frayman, or another person entirely, but it was someone of that quality of an opponent). Our team consisted of a bunch of Texas and Louisiana pros who were generally unknown outside of the New Orleans/Texas area.

They definitely had the play skill over our team, but we had a lot more draft experience than them. Jon Finkel passed two Pestilence to his left, setting up one of our guys with an easy 4-0 deck. The rest of the matches went back and forth, and the rubber match came down to me versus Jon, with our team leading eight matches to seven. If I won, we would outright win the draft. If I lost, we’d have to go to a tiebreaker, which obviously we would not want if possible. Jon had drafted a mono-Blue deck, featuring six Pendrell Drake, and multiple other Blue stall cards. I had gotten a base White deck, with a slight splash of Red.

I took the first game quickly, and Jon smashed my in the second game. In the third game, Jon appeared to be getting the upper hand until I dropped a Rune of Protection: Blue. His deck had absolutely no way to deal with Rune of Protection: Blue once it hit the board, except for a single Rescind. I also knew, from the second game, that he was running at least one Annul. The game progressed for quite a while, with him lining up five of his Pendrell Drakes against my nearly empty board of lands and Rune of Protection: Blue. I finally worked up to twelve mana, and dropped a 12/12 Serra Avatar. The Avatar started hitting the red zone, and Jon had to being chumping with his Drakes.

Finally, with two Drakes off the board, but with him having drawn a couple of more flyers, Jon went for it. At the end of my turn, he Rescinded my ROP: Blue. On his turn, he swung in, and I had to chump a bunch of his guys – he reduced me to six life. On my turn, I tapped two and dropped the ROP back onto the board. He cast Annul. I smiled, tapped two more mana, and dropped my second Rune of Protection: Blue. Jon couldn’t believe it. "Who runs two of those?" he asked. I had drawn the second Rune turns earlier, but hugged it for dear life knowing that his only course of action was the bounce and counter the first. With the second Rune on the board, Jon had absolutely no way to damage me left in his deck, and my creatures eventually overwhelmed him, winning us the draft.

His team begrudgingly paid out our winnings, and our team went wild – the entire Texas contingent of Magic players had gathered to watch that last match. Everyone was hugging each other and throwing around high fives and whooping it up. I may have done badly at that Pro Tour, but I had a great time proving to myself that if I put in the effort and practice, I could beat the best that the game had to offer.

Wednesday: Team Tulane makes their debut at Pro Tour: New York (actually in New Jersey) 1999!