Buying Michael Jacob’s Collection

Grand Prix Winner Brian DeMars learned a lot from former National Champion Michael Jacob. In this nostalgic read, he tells you about saying thank you and goodbye to his Magic: the Gathering mentor.

A long, long time ago on a plane far away…

I was a young man playing in my second ever PTQ.  The format was super old Extended with cards going all the way back to Tempest block.  I was more confident in my abilities than my abilities rightly deserved back then.

I had gotten back into Magic after graduating from high school as something to do while I was going to college at the University of Michigan.  Mostly, I played Vintage, but I was just starting to become a little bit more serious about playing the other formats.  In this case, I was playing a U/R Goblin Welder / Intuition based deck. 

I lost in the Top 8 to a Burn player who went on to lose in the finals to a then up and coming player named Michael Jacob.  As Mike slaughtered the poor Burn player with his B/G Rock deck in the finals, I realized something that I had never really known for sure before: I was not nearly as good at this game as I thought I was.

You see, watching Mike play I realized that I would have been making different plays were I piloting his deck and that the plays I would have made would have caused me to lose.  It was a classic case of “big fish, little pond” for me because I had always played within a relatively small pool of players where I was the best, but watching this Michael Jacob character play it was clear that there was a lot of room for improvement.

So, that was my first impression of MJ — that he was the best IRL Magic player that I had ever seen before.

Everybody has that Magic player that is their favorite player to root for and look to when trying to improve their game.  Player’s watch the pros play in tournaments via the live stream and they have their favorites.  Some players like the person who plays the same kinds of decks as they do, some players like different aspects of a player’s game; whatever the reason, everybody has players that they model their game after.

Back when I was trying to become good at Magic, there were no live streams.  There was no video coverage of tournaments.  So, if you wanted to learn from somebody in order to get better at Magic there were basically two routes:  1. Read articles on SCG, or 2. Meet somebody who was actually good and learn from them.

I was lucky enough to have the second option present itself to me back when I was about twenty years old.

I started going up to the game shop where Mike worked and hung out. Playing with the players up there instead of my typical stomping ground made whole new world of play present itself to me.  The old group where I played was more focused on collecting cards, building collections, and building up sweet foils and rare cards.  Hanging out with this new crowd was the exact opposite: it was all about playing well and competing and nobody cared about how many foils you owned. All that mattered was how many wins you put up in a team draft!

Since then I’ve had the privilege to play hundreds of games with Mike and have learned many lessons about drafting, deck building, and technical in-game decision making from those experiences. 

I’ve traveled with him to dozens of tournaments over the years.  When I won Grand Prix Boston-Worcester, he and I drove all the way from Michigan (just the two of us), and I’m pretty sure that getting to talk to him for ten hours solid about the format was a major contributing factor to my success.  I even loaned him my complete Strategic Slaver Vintage deck to take to Europe to play in Eurovino one year.

It was a bittersweet day on Tuesday when he walked into RIW Hobbies (where I work as the manager) and said, “I got the job in Denver and I leave tomorrow.  I’d like to sell my collection.”

Obviously, I was very happy for Mike and that he had been offered a great opportunity, but I was also a little bit saddened that he’d be moving away, and I’d likely not get to play much Magic with him anymore.

Mike has always had a close relationship with RIW, and I wasn’t at all surprised that if and when he sold his collection he would bring it to us.  He has more trophies on our trophy shelf than anybody else by a wide margin.  Between VS System, Magic, and World of Warcraft, there are literally eight feet of MJ accomplishments. 

Pam, the owner of the store, has always gone out of her way to help the local Michigan players by affording them access to cards, sponsorships, and keys to the store so that they have a place to play literally 24-7.  If there was a Michigan Magic Hall of Fame, she would probably be the first person I would vote to put in it based upon all of the support that she has given to local players to help them to compete on the national and international stage.  It is really no coincidence that basically everybody who was great from Michigan came through RIW Hobbies:  Mike Jacob, Patrick Chapin, Mark Herberholtz, Aaron Brieder, Ari Lax, Kyle Boggemes, EDT, etc.  All of these players have trophies on the shelf at the store.

In fact, when Mike started bringing in his boxes and binders he was like, “These boxes I’m just donating to the store because I’m sure a lot of it was stuff I borrowed but never got around to returning, but this other stuff in these boxes over here is stuff from before I started playing seriously, so I know it is for sure not borrowed.”

We chatted for a while as I went through all of his stuff, added it all up, and made him an offer.  There were a bunch of old booster packs that he had undoubtedly won at PTQs back during Kamigawa that looked like they might have been a little bit water damaged from sitting in a basement for a decade that I couldn’t risk buying and selling to a customer, so we cracked them, and I purchased the contents that were not damaged.  There was a Betrayers of Kamigawa pack with an Umezawa’s Jitte that we had to throw into the trash because it was basically a pile of goo. 

99.9% of the cards were fine and the transaction was made.  Michael Jacob, the Magic player whose game that I had looked up to the most for basically an entire decade, had just sold me all of his Magic cards and now owned zero cards.  It was kind of a weird moment.

As I started to go through all of the boxes that he had donated to the store, I realized something unique about Mike’s collection.  Most of his cards were still in “deck form,” meaning that all of his cards were still in the decks where he had played them.

So as I sorted Mike’s cards, I basically got to go through every single deck that MJ had ever played in the history of his entire Magic career which was an extremely interesting experience.

There were approximately 50 draft decks that spanned all the way back to Odyssey block (remember, for the most part at the store, we team draft and the contents get redistributed at the end).  So these draft decks were mostly decks with Pro Tour stamped cards, meaning that he drafted them at a PT or a GP Day 2.  It was pretty cool to look at all of the different kinds of decks he had drafted over the years.

The one thing that I will say about Mike’s drafting skills is that he rarely has any kind of bias toward playing any set of colors, and I’m pretty sure that between all the decks every two and/or three color combination was equally represented.

Cooler still than the draft decks was getting to look at all of his different constructed decks that he had played and kept intact over the years.

It was like basically every single deck that Mike has played in his entire career.

He played a lot of Raging Ravines over the years.

MJ’s collection had at least a dozen Raging Ravines in it.

I had a hand in helping brew some of the decks that Mike played (and I played a lot of the same decks) and it brought back a lot of memories about decks that I had completely forgotten about.

As you can see, this is a pretty sweet deck that qualified me for the Midwest Masters Series tournament at Gen Con.  It is pretty clearly an MJ brew and has lots of awesome synergies going for it.

The Ardent Pleas always cascaded into a cantrip in the form of Spreading Seas or Wall of Omens.  Another cool aspect of the deck was that against combo decks we could sideboard out our two-drop cantrips and have our Pleas always cascade into Meddling Mages!

This deck was significant for me for one very specific reason:  in the tournament I came up against Mike in one of the later rounds of the tournament playing for Top 8, and he was playing the identical 75-card mirror match.  I remember when I saw his name paired up with mine on the pairing sheet that I felt dread and thought that I was going to lose the match.  It’s his deck.  He is better than me. 

I had only played against Mike a couple of times in tournaments, but I had never beaten him before.

I ended up winning the match in a very close three game set where I actually felt like I played really well when it was all over with.  I didn’t make any mistakes (nor did he), and I ended up winning and qualifying for the invitational.

That match was significant for me for one reason: that was the last time that I was paired up against somebody and was afraid and felt like I should lose.  If I can beat Mike (the player that I have always thought was the best player) in a 75-card mirror match with a deck that he designed, I can literally play with anyone, anywhere, at any time.

So, one of the coolest things I found buried in the MJ collection came from a box of stuff that was from his way early days of playing Magic.

Did you know that Mike invented fairies?

There is simply something awesome about a deck like this.  Clearly, a non-competitive deck built by a learning to play/casual player Mike Jacob back in the day with the cards that he had on hand at the time.

The thing is that this deck is extremely sophisticated for a casual deck and is actually quite good.

The first thing about this deck is that it cheats on lands in a way that actually works in the same way that a deck like RUG Delver cheats on lands by bouncing them back to its hand and playing free spells.

The second thing that impresses me about this deck is that it stays in “theme” the entire time.  It is clearly a faerie deck in every aspect possible, but it is faeries in a time when faeries were not exactly the premier tribe to be playing.

On Thursday at work, a player came in and explained to me that they are just getting into Magic, playing with their friends, and that they had just built a first deck. They asked me if I’d like to play a couple of games.  I start to respond with my typical, “I only really have tournament decks, which wouldn’t really be very fun for you…” Then I realized something.  I grabbed MJ’s faerie deck out of the stack because I wanted to write about it for my article.

“Actually, I do have a deck that I can play against you with!  As long as you don’t mind that it’s mostly old cards.”

“My deck has lots of old cards too, so that’s fine with me.”

So, I grabbed the faeries deck out of my back pack, and we played a couple of games and it was a ton of fun.

I can’t even fully articulate the bizarre nature of the experience.

Me (a person who learned to play competitive Magic from MJ) playing MJs deck (that he built when he was a kid) against another beginner who was just learning how to play!

It’s like the crystallization of some bizarre MTG Lion King “Circle of Life” song or something…

I guess that the moral of the story through all of this is that everybody starts somewhere and then moves on to bigger and better things.  When I was coming up and learning the ropes of competitive Magic, Mike was the example of the ultimate “good player” in every way.  His technical play was unbeatable, his deckbuilding prowess was undeniable, and he was willing to help players improve their game.

I didn’t meet Mike until he was already well on his way to being a Pro Tour star a decade ago, but there was also clearly a young MJ who brewed up UG Faeries decks and played for fun with his friends.

It’s so easy to look at pro players who have accomplished things we hope to accomplish some day, who have already made their mark and possess the skills that we seek to hone; we just assume that they were always that good.  The truth is that behind every great player there was once a bright-eyed new comer who encountered the world of Magic and was mesmerized by all of the possibilities, someone who didn’t know “what was good” and “what was terrible” yet and who just built decks for fun because they wanted to try out new things.

Even the great ones had to start at the beginning. 

I’d like to wish MJ the best of luck on the next leg of his journey.  It’s been a true honor to have gotten the opportunity to learn so much about Magic from him over the years, and he will be sorely missed around the old stomping ground.