Jeff Cunningham’s “Untold Legends of the Million Dollar Magic: The Gathering Pro Tour”

Jeff Cunningham is a simple man. When not slinging spells with the best players in the world and tutoring young Canadians in the Ways of the Mage, Jeff herds yaks and water buffalo on his ranch in the Great White North. In spite of these humble roots, Cunningham is one of the finest Magic writers alive and today he makes his debut on StarCityGames.com, delivering tales and spinning yarns designed to bring a smile to your face and a tear to your eye.

Hello, this is Jeff Cunningham. This is my first time writing an article here at StarCityGames.com, but I hope you will give me a warm welcome. It’s already late in the season now.

#01 – Jeff Cunningham – Introduction & Snaphots of Pro Tour: Houston ’02

There was this poem I read in high school… and I really wish I could remember at least the name, or the author, or a word that was in it so I could Google it… but the poem, one of those long ones, like the one from the flavor text of Wasteland, was about the fact that many potential geniuses are never acknowledged. They may die young, they may be in the wrong geographical location to be recognized, or their life may guide them down a path other than the one upon which they would excel. They fade away before they’re ever discovered.

It occurred to me one day that this was not unlike Magic, and the dying art of the tournament report. How many great stories are there floating around in the Pro Tour’s history that just never got written down?

If you’ve ever read a good tournament report you may have noticed a certain effect it has on the event it describes. It adds texture and depth. An event is more than just the plain facts about who won, and who lost. There is a certain personality to every event defined by who was in attendance, and how they interacted, and by the mood of the venue. These details are present in anecdotes. They reveal the unique definition of a given event.

As a young PTQ player, I would hear scraps of information with no follow up. Happy John Chinook “breaking the bridge” at Pro Tour: NY 98, Mike Long’s Howling Wolf shuffling tricks at PT: LA 99, and Hacker’s Gusta’s Sceptre deck at PT: Rome. I longed to hear these stories in detail, but nothing ever trickled down.

All of the information I did get was filtered through my “pro” friend, Doug Potter. He was an untrustworthy source. One of his more ludicrous claims was that he invented the Snake archetype. Mind you, this was when the only snakes were Naf’s Asp and Cockatrice, so maybe he did. But still, put Doug on a polygraph and it would look like f***ing etch-a-sketch. He did not paint me an accurate portrait of the Tour.

The point is that accounts from first-hand sources help everyone appreciate an event’s unique significance. In terms of history, these anecdotal details are just as important as the straight numbers. Recording them, though, is not as simple.

First, it requires a person capable of recording information in this way-a writer. Not only that, but a writer willing to focus on the peripheral happenings at tournament. And of course the writer has to be good enough to interpret what of his experience was relevant, and be able to explain it in a unique way.

Second, this writer has to have experienced the event in a fundamental way. Typically, this means placing high, having placed high before, having friends who consistently place high, or all three. The closer this person is to the essence of the Pro Tour, the better.

Third, not only does this warrior poet have to be a good writer and a core member of the Pro Tour, he actually has to write. This is the tricky part. There are a number of players in a position to write a great report, but who never do so at the time, either because they’re busy spending their money, don’t consider themselves a writer, or just can’t appreciate the relevance of their experience until later.

In this way, many great reports are lost.

But- and this is the key to our exercise here -just because a player missed the boat at the time doesn’t mean they can’t come back. Yes, the strategy is outdated, but that’s actually a blessing; now the anecdotal details can take center stage. Also, the extra time means added perspective; the significant details of the event are now apparent, and have been cast in the golden light of nostalgia, ripe for the telling. For example, at PT San Diego I was under the impression that I had a faithful girlfriend. Posterity has shown that I was in fact being cuckolded, and so I am afforded a more accurate look at the event in question.

And so our project begins.

Every week there will be a new writer. Some weeks it will be a person you recognize as a writer, others it may be someone you’ve never read. They will be hand-picked, by me, for their capacity to tell a story, and for having had a unique role on the Pro Tour. They will discuss a tournament report that stands out in their career as significant and revisit it.

Because some of these events will have taken place a long time ago, many of these writers will have moved on from the game. This will be the final forum for them to express their views on the game. This will be both pulpit and epitaph for many of the game’s cherished personalities.

I will open each column by discussing both the significance of the player to the game, and the event in Pro Tour history. I might also make jokes, some of which may be tasteless, as can be my way.

I may also include some of my own anecdotes, in part to satisfy the word-count stipulated by my contract.

Let it be known that taken individually, these anecdotes are not “classics from the Pro Tour.” They are details as I remember them. They are things that happened to me.

When examined alongside others’ memories, though, I hope they will be part of a broader understanding of the Pro Tour spectacle.

Like my grandma before me, I intend to create a living history… although with words, and not over-sized novelty quilts.

So, to summarize:

1. Every week there will be a new writer reliving their Pro Tour glory. As introduction, I will biograph them, and their event.

2. I might also relate some anecdotes. My “report” will be ongoing.

3. The purpose of this exercise, beyond entertainment and aesthetic pleasure, is to contribute to Magic’s historical record. This is accomplished both by biographing persons at the heart of the Pro Tours’ character who may have otherwise not had the limelight, and by coloring past events with previously untold anecdotes.

4. This might be the greatest column you ever read.

It begins next week.

Until then, I have included three stories from Pro Tour Houston ’02 to tide you.

1. Gabe Walls And Half A Damage

Let me tell you about Gabe Walls.

The first time I ever saw Gabe Walls was immediately after I won GP: Philidelphia. While I was playing in the finals, my friends started a money draft, and I was waiting for them to finish so I could go eat. To kill time, I was watching a PTQ finals. It was Walls, in full form, talking his biggest game. But I was watching from his hand, and even though he was playing fast, a lot of his plays were very impressive. So impressive, that I remember thinking “this guy might be better than me.” A strange thought to have after winning a GP, watching a PTQ…

Anyway, a few weeks later, and it was PT: Houston. I was playing U/G Madness, in Extended, which at the time was considered absurd. Call it grandiose, but the most suitable analogy is to the Wright brothers and the airplane (“A flying machine? In Extended? Why it’s preposterous!”). But nothing in my testing was beating it so I decided to go with it (“and changed the face of Extended forever!”-okay, I’ll stop).

I won my first match, and in the second was paired against Gabe Walls.

He was playing Tog and we split the first two games. Game 3, he attacks his Psychatog turn 4 into my Arrogant Wurm. I don’t block. He says, with his southern flourish/cackle, “I gatcha.” Without pause he floats, Gushes, and then Fact or Fictions for the win… which I Daze. Aptly named; he’s stunned.

Short four or five damage and back down to two land, he pumps with an Island so he doesn’t have to discard, and I’m at 18.

I begin to dominate the game, and before long he’s at 2, and I have out a (tapped) Mongrel and an untapped Arrogant Wurm. Wonder is in the ‘yard. He has a Psychatog though, and a full hand. He spends his first main phase playing card drawing spells, tapping down to two land. After some thinking, he attacks with the Psychatog.

I know he’s playing Chainer’s Edict, so I think that if I block, he’ll pump, and then kill my other guy. On the other hand, if I survive, he has no outs. So, I take a while-I mean, a good, five-minute while, to do the math. On the board, he can do me 17.5 damage. If he has Gush, I’m dead. (In hindsight, Brainstorm also kills me, but I didn’t consider that.) But I knew he had to attack no matter what (since I had Wonder), and I had a feeling he didn’t have Gush, as he would’ve killed me last turn if he had it then, so he would’ve had to have just drawn it. I don’t block.

He looks me in the eye for a second. And then, slowly – and in a way I recognized as similar to when you need to draw a burn spell to kill someone, instead draw a Mountain, but stay poker-faced and flip it over in slow motion, and then say “Shock ya” before revealing the blank and scooping-begins discarding Island, Island, Island, Island… from his hand. He’s going so slow it’s tense. I stop him:

“Do you have the Gush?”

Pause. “No.”

Then, “so that’s game right?” (I have two guys in play. He’s at 2.)

“Yeah, that’s game.”


We scoop up our cards, shake hands, and begin chatting as he fills out the match slip, 2-1 for him.

I correct him, “Oh, you mixed that up.” He gives me an odd look.

“I won…”

“I won.”

Pause. With horror, I realize the situation.

“The Psychatog was lethal,” Walls says.

Gabe Walls, age 10.

“No, it was only 17 and a half damage.”

We both turn to the table judge, who has been watching the entire time. He looks uncomfortable. After a moment, he clears his throat, and speaks to Gabe. “Uh… did you… have a lot of cards in your graveyard?”

Clearly, we were going to need backup…

After much debate, the head judge tells us there are three options: we can both get a win, a draw, or a loss. Walls and I found some common ground quickly as we scrambled to agree wins-all-around sounded like a good compromise. Perhaps our enthusiasm turned him off; we were both given a draw.

Since then we have become friends. But to this day both of us claim we won that game.

2. Ben and Kai

Right now, dominance of the Pro Tour is pretty spread out. If you’re Japanese or a Ruel, you’re probably up there. That’s a lot of guys.

But three or four years ago it was the height of Kai’s dominance. I mean, no one was close. He was fresh off three consecutive PT wins, not to mention he hadn’t missed Day 2 in, like, ever.

North Americans lived in constant fear. Me especially.

Going into the final round of the first day at Houston, Kai wasn’t off to his usual 5-1 start (a start which, I once heard him note, he had never missed Top 8 from.) He was 4-2, though, and poised to make at least a good finish. All he had to do was draw into Day 2.

He was paired against Ben Rubin.

Ben Rubin was feeling unhappy that weekend. I’m not sure what kind of unhappy, I’m not sure why. But he would later tell me he was ready to do anything to change his mood. When he initially saw the pairing he planned to draw. But then he reconsidered.

Knowing it was a good matchup for him, and wanting to play, for a reason no less crucial to his spirit than so that he could feel again, Rubin denied Kai’s request for a draw.

Not Joe Blow from Peanut Butter Park, Ohio – Kai.

Try to imagine yourself at 4-2 Round 7 at a Pro Tour. Your opponent sits down across from you and offers to draw both of you into Day 2. He happens to be the best player to have ever played the game, and oh yeah, he’s also at peak dominance. And he wants to draw. With you.

And you say “Sorry Kai I CAN’T REMEMBER.”

And he’s like, “What?”

And you’re like, “I meant to say ‘I came to play’ but I screwed it up because I have literally never been so terrified.”

That’s what I would have imagined happens to someone when they try to deny Kai. Ben Rubin taught me a lesson that day.

So there they are, in the Feature Match pit. Playing it out.

Kai turns to Patrick Mello in an adjacent match and declares, incredulous, “this guy won’t draw with me!”

4-2-1 and in Day 2, I’m watching from the rail, flabbergasted.

This was the man who had personally terrorized me for three Pro Tours in a row, costing me countless Masters invites.

The nitty gritty is here, but I’ll sum it up. In two straight games, Kai was wrecked, scratched, stolen, breathed on wrong, possibly sh*t on by a pigeon. The coup de grace was when Rubin ripped an Engineered Plague to both kill off a pair of Mesmeric Fiends, and let Psychatog come in unimpeded with two extra cards to finish the job.

A ripple spread through the crowd, and trust me, it was a moment. It wasn’t what had happened in the match, but the idea of it. The sheer insolence.

Now, In the words of the late, great Brett Shears, “I am always one to admit that Kai is clearly the best player in the world and I am nowhere near that, but when you 5-0 a team, it usually feels good.” I am sure that was true for Ben Rubin that day, and somehow it was true for me too. I feel like Ben set a precedent for the little guys, like me and Brett and… well that’s about it, but it was inspiring.

I recently read Kai Budde saying Ben Rubin is the opponent he fears the most. I assume this match is a large part of the reason why.

The face... of death.

3. Andy Wolf’s Face

I’m sitting there… under those lights… sweating… squinting… thinking, this guy… his skin’s like f***ing silly putty… he’s like a dying shapeshifter… I’m seeing universes being born in the contours of this guy’s cheeks. I’m completely mesmerized. I feel like Odo from Deep Space Nine next to this guy.

I mean, I’m looking at this guy, just going, is this for real? Did someone put shrooms in my drink while I wasn’t looking?

It’s round 12 and I’m tripping out looking at Andy Wolf’s face. He has the most expressive face I’ve ever faced in a Magic tournament. And it’s weirding me.

Andy Wolf. My only ever Pro Tour 8 opponent. Crushed me 3-0.

He’s playing Suicide Black and it’s Game 3.

Take a minute to think through this next situation. You’ll find it’s quite tricky.

I’m at 3, he’s at 8. He has out a Sarcomancy, its (tapped) token, a Carnophage and no cards in hand. I have out a Roar token, and my card for the turn- a land. What’s my play?

If I leave my Roar as a blocker, it comes down to the top of our decks with him probably a 2-to-1 favorite (he has Perish, Terror, and Cursed Scroll in addition to creatures). If either one of us draws something relevant when the other doesn’t, it’s pretty much over.

If I attack, and he doesn’t block, I lose on the spot. If he blocks, though, I’m in a much better position, probably a 4-to-1 favorite (he has to draw something, and then I have to draw nothing for him to win).

But why would he block? He has to be almost certain the card in my hand is a creature, in which case blocking would be the right play to give him a potential extra draw step at the instant win cards (Perish, Scroll, maybe a shadow guy).

Deciding it’s my best shot at winning, and always erring on the side of aggression, I attack.

Andy looks at me and grimaces. I think he read me for a land, right off the bat, and can’t understand why I would throw the game away.

It’s at this point that his face begins contorting. It’s a direct window to his brain. To this day, I have never seen anything like it. I could tell exactly what he was thinking – and it was really complicated – just from his face.

First, he realizes I must have drawn the land. He nods, knowing that if I’d had a creature, I would’ve attacked without thinking.

Double-checking, he goes through the possibilities from my side of the board. I watch, during the period of about a minute, as he checks through, one by one, my options, and realizes how I justify an attack here.

Not only that, I can see him telling himself, shrugging now, he just can’t block here, the odds are too great that I don’t have a creature.

Utterly satisfied at a flawless sequence of logic, he opens his mouth. He knows I have a land in my hand, and that all he has to do to win is take i–

“Block.” He tosses his Carnophage in the bin.

We both look up from the board.

To clarify in poker terms: I just made an all-in bluff at Andy. He went into the tank, looked me straight in the eye, sensed weakness, saw that I was bluffing, reconstructed my betting pattern, a pattern which definitively revealed I was bluffing, and announced that he knew I was bluffing. He then folded.

On his turn he drew a creature, but I also drew one, so that was it.

I could tell he realized he messed up, but couldn’t quite pinpoint where. His face was awash with frustration. You see, Andy’s face knew something that Andy’s mind didn’t catch in time. Andy’s face wanted to take the damage, but his head got in the way.

When I think back to this match, I am reminded of Gary Talim’s poker philosophy: “two faces, gotta call.” So true.

See you next week,

Jeff Cunningham