Mixed kNuts: Kai And The Two Sticks? I Think Not! An Interview With Dirk Baberowski

What do you know about Dirk Baberowski? Uh, he’s German, right? And… Um, he’s friends with Kai – and um, uh…
Well, if you want his Magic resume, he’s the 2003 German National Champion, he has three Pro Tour titles under his belt (two team titles with Kai Budde and Marco Blume, and a solo Pro Tour title from Chicago ’98), a second-place finish at Euros ’99, and an additional Pro Tour Top 8 at Chicago ’99.
But what do you know about Dirk, the man? He has more Pro Tour wins than Finkel, is part of the best three-man Magic team of all time, and yet nobody on this side of the Atlantic knows a damned thing about him. Hopefully we’ll change that today, and show you how a master of Rochester prepares for Team Drafting.

What do you know about Dirk Baberowski? Uh, he’s German, right? And… Um, he’s friends with Kai – and um, uh…

Well, if you want his Magic resume, he’s the 2003 German National Champion, he has three Pro Tour titles under his belt (two team titles with Kai Budde and Marco Blume, and a solo Pro Tour title from Chicago ’98), a second-place finish at Euros ’99, and an additional Pro Tour Top 8 at Chicago ’99.

But what do you know about Dirk, the man? He has more Pro Tour wins than Finkel, is part of the best three-man Magic team of all time, and yet nobody on this side of the Atlantic knows a damned thing about him. That makes him a bit of an enigma, really, and a prime interview target. Hopefully by the end of this, you’ll know a bit more about a Magic Pro who’s not an American, and maybe learn a thing or two in the process.

I know I did…

TK: What’s your full name?

Dirk: Um, that would be Dirk Baberowski. I have a middle name, but no one ever uses their middle name here.

TK: Fair ’nuff. Now Dirk is a great name, but do you have any nicknames, like Diggler or”the Dagger”?

Dirk: Nope.

TK: Where are you from?

Dirk: I currently live in Salzgitter, Germany, and I was born around here too. It’s a rather small, boring industrial town, and there’s no Magic here.

TK: Do you have a job outside of playing Magic?

Dirk: I own and run a travel agency… At the moment, anyway!

TK: How did you get involved in that?

Dirk: I just randomly decided it would be a good thing to do. I was going to open a gaming store, which sounds so good in theory… But then I noticed that this meant being surrounded by gamers and/or obnoxious teenagers fourteen hours a day. I passed.

TK: Were your parents travel agents or something? I’m still curious how you decided you knew enough to run a travel agency.

Dirk: I didn’t. I was helping out in a travel agency that someone I knew owned, and it wasn’t making money, so he was going to close it. He was in a poor location, so I decided I would move it and give it a shot.

TK: So how’s it doing now?

Dirk: Pretty well. Hard to tell after only two years. It could be great without the war, but that’s how it goes.

TK: I know lots of small business owners, that say,”If you aren’t closed and aren’t broke, you’re doing all right.”

Dirk: Yeah; that was another thing that kept me from opening a gaming store. I was confident I could do many things better than others were doing them, but they’re not exactly getting rich…

TK: Do you have hobbies outside of playing Magic?

Dirk: Yes – I play soccer a lot. That’s about my only hobby. I guess. I wouldn’t even call Magic a hobby. The little bit of Magic that I do play is half hobby, half job.

TK: Which makes you somewhat unusual in that you are a fit Magic player.

Dirk: I think that’s a bit of a stereotype. The fitness level among professional Magic players isn’t terrible.

TK: I’ve heard that you scaled back on the Magic playing a bit. How much did you practice before German Nationals?

Dirk: Before German Nationals? Not one bit. On the ride to the tournament, I asked Kai and Marco about the format; that was my entire preparation. I read the spoiler for the draft. I hadn’t played Standard since the Chicago Masters in January.

TK: So you won German Nats with little to no prior preparation… That either says a lot about your knowledge of the game in general or about your luck.

Dirk: …Or both! *grins* I do have a decent understanding of the game, but I am overrated as a player.

TK: How did you get started in Magic?

Dirk: I was introduced by people in high school. I got started in competitive Magic about a year later when I moved to Cologne – which is about the same time that Kai started, by the way. There was already a competitive group of players there at the time. I skipped a lot of classes my last year and needed something to do.

TK: Was Kai in Cologne as well?

Dirk: Yeah, he’s from there.

TK: When did you first qualify for the Tour?

Dirk: 1998. I finished 10th or 11th at Grand Prix: Zurich. I had already been playing for a while, but never could play in PTQs because of my job.

TK: Do you have a favorite format?

Dirk: Team Rochester. I don’t even mind one-on-one Team Rochester. It is a very good format. I like Type 1, too – at least Type 1 how it was years ago. Current Extended is also good.

TK: Team Rochester also seems to be a very profitable format for you.

Dirk: Yeah, that doesn’t hurt.

TK: Your list of accomplishments includes two Team Pro Tour wins, a win at PT Chicago ’98, and a German National Championship… Anything I’m missing?

Dirk: I have some random stuff… Like a second place at Euros 99, and a PT Top 8 (at Chicago 99).

TK: And two Pro Tour wins with Kai and Marco? Or is it three now?

Dirk: Not for another month!

TK: Which of those are you most proud of?

Dirk: Probably the Euros finish, because we really broke the format. Our deck got errata’d within days!

TK: A win in your first Pro Tour is pretty impressive. What did that feel like?

Dirk: It seemed easy at the time. I was very, very good at drafting that format. I played Sealed every day, and I literally don’t think I did worse than 2-1 in any draft over the course of several months. So Kai and I were very very cocky before the Pro Tour.

This was my first Pro Tour and Kai’s second, and we were both saying,”Anything worse than the Top 32 would be a severe disappointment.”

TK: And judging by your results, it turned out to be mere confidence… not really cocky. Speaking of Kai, how did you hook up with Kai and Marco?

Dirk: Well Kai and I had been playing together, and were the best in Cologne after a while. This was in 97/98. We hadn’t done anything, but were well respected in Germany. Marco had been playing forever, but in Hamburg. So he moved to Cologne in early 99, and we’ve been friends since.

TK: Why do you think you guys work so well together as a team?

Dirk: Well, for one thing we have been doing it forever – everybody knows their job. But also because we work hard. We really do prepare.

TK: And you’re all pretty good friends, right?

Dirk: Yes – but I’m not even sure that is necessary. Friendship is not nearly as relevant as respect.

TK: Are there dust-ups when learning a new format?

Dirk: Heh, well… Kai is the only one who actually plays, so he is the only one who actually has an opinion early on in a format. So, no. Sometimes it takes a while to convince some of us what the right decision is, but we do eventually agree.

TK: Aside from the hard work aspect, which is clear since you guys have had prolonged success, how do you consistently crack team formats?

Dirk: I couldn’t say anything but hard work. Team Limited is a lot like Constructed; there’s a metagame, and so we learn what wins matchups.

TK: Nobody talks about Team, so it’s hard to get a handle on what preparation is actually done. Do you work with other teams when testing, or does one person run each draft and then you play out the matchups?

Dirk: We draft against other teams, generally.

TK: How does Marco work into your team dynamic?

Dirk: He works out his matchup. We sort of work on our seats independently.

TK: So you guys draft with a set plan?

Dirk: Yes. But the first one we won, we didn’t – at least not really.

TK: thinking that forcing matchups/seats is better than being reactive?

Dirk: Yes, I think so.

TK: That’s really interesting. I just assumed that at a certain level, most teams were reactive and the team that gets to the best matchups while still having decks wins.

Dirk: Yeah well, you’re not the only one, and maybe we’re wrong…

TK: Not lately you’re not!

Dirk: …but, like, it’s not like the matchups are all clear cut. It might be different this year, as we haven’t worked on that too much. (Author’s note: They went 3-0 in Team Rochester at Grand Prix: Amsterdam.)

TK: I guess understanding the format as well as you seem to gives you a better idea of what to cut and what makes the matchup for your deck as well as for the other team.

Dirk: Yes, exactly. Once again, it’s a lot like Constructed.

TK: Describe how you guys went about testing for Worlds?

Dirk: Now, that was something different. I have a reasonably large house, so for the month leading up to Worlds there were gamers at my house testing. Very unorganized. Fortunately, it wasn’t too hard. Almost everyone German was there – except for, interestingly, Wolfgang Eder. I think we just forgot him, though, and he didn’t contact me… And he ended up T8’ing Worlds.

TK: So Daniel Zink was there?

Dirk: Yeah, he showed up the Thursday before Worlds, I believe. Oh, and John Larkin, who has been a playtest partner for a while now.

TK: So you and Kai floated around the top of the standings for most of the tournament and Daniel Zink won it.

Dirk: Actually, I was eliminated early. I started 4-0 and then went to like 7-5. Then lost my first round on day 3, so I was out at that point.

TK: Was Rochester was unkind to you?

Dirk: I guess. I have hated Onslaught Block for forever now. I had decent decks – but whatever…

TK: A lot of pros have expressed their distaste for drafting Onslaught… Where does your distaste come from?

Dirk: A ton of reasons. Too many to detail, I think…

TK: Just a few, perhaps?

Dirk: Okay, for example: I hate the fact that it is impossible to draft an 0-3 deck. In other draft formats, you would first-pick, say, a Cephalid Looter – and if you didn’t notice that the person feeding you was also blue, you would end up with seventeen playables. In Onslaught draft, because of morphs, you always have twenty-two playables. It’s impossible not to, so you don’t get punished for poor drafting.

TK: Even if they are just 2/2 dorks.

Dirk: Yeah, but a deck of 2/2 dorks and a good first pick is still decent, assuming that first pick is something like Sparksmith. Sparksmith + Nosy Goblin beats the better drafter…

TK: I’ll be honest with you; I read a lot of Magic writing, and I know almost no personal details about you, Marco, or Kai, three of the most successful players in the world… Why do you think that is?

Dirk: How many European players do you know personal details of?

TK: Uh, Walamies? I think he’s about it.

Dirk: Yes – and that’s only because he writes.

TK: Well, that and the fact that we’re decent friends so I talk to him from time to time.

Dirk: Anyway, he would be who people know stuff about.

TK: So do the Euros not get the PR, or are they not interested?

Dirk: Some of both? I don’t really know…

TK: Do you get more press in Germany?

Dirk: A little, I guess… Not really, though. There’s not as much hype here. As soon as any American kid has two decent finishes, he becomes the next big thing, one of the best drafters in the world, a force on the money draft circuit (which is another word for not a force on the Pro Tour…). But no one does that for Europeans. It might be because of the general mindset here, I dunno.

TK: So how’d you like giving all the interviews to the German media prior to Worlds?

Dirk: Heh; you heard about that? That was fine.

TK: Yeah, I heard you were quite busy, with both radio and television exposure.

Dirk: The interviews between rounds were somewhat annoying. Heh. There was a lot of PR… I was impressed. Worlds was on the evening news of Germany’s biggest TV station.

TK: And you were the smiling face at the front.

Dirk: Heh; no. Actually, they couldn’t find me, so they featured Mark Zadjner, Darwin Kastle, and Antonino de Rosa.

TK: Oh dear – that’s a trifecta.

Dirk: Sure is.

TK: Tell us two facts about Kai that the world should know. (He’s only the most popular player in the world, and we have no personal details!)

Dirk: Hmm… *long pause* I can’t think of anything…

TK: All righty, then – how about one fact about Kai that nobody else knows? Perhaps something funny or embarrassing?

Dirk: Everybody knows everything about Kai already!

TK: How about one fact about Dirk that nobody knows?

Dirk: Errrrr…. *another long pause*

TK: You Germans! You apparently have no personal lives!

Dirk: *chuckles*

(Incidentally, I asked Kai the exact same questions about Dirk for this interview, and Kai stonewalled me just like Dirk did. When asked whether there were no interesting details to share about Dirk, Kai replied”Oh sure, there are lots of things to know about Dirk – but he’d kill me if I put them up on StarCityGames for everyone to read.”)

TK: The people I’ve talked to you have described you as a very straightforward individual who’s not afraid to state his opinion, why is that?

Dirk: All Germans are… Heh, rude.

TK: Is it rude, or is it businesslike and efficient?

Dirk: Hard to say. We love to criticize. Like when you show up at the office and are not having a good day, we’ll tell you.

TK: Yeah, our president is a big fan of that trait.

Dirk:”Hi, what’s wrong with you – you look like s**t today!” That’s something you could easily hear here.

TK: Who are your favorite people to hang out with on the Tour and why?

Dirk: There are lots of people I like, but I don’t actually”hang out” with anyone except for the Germans, I guess. And Larkin and Gary Wise.

TK: Wise? I didn’t know that. Is he a teammate or just an old pal?

Dirk: Oh yeah. He has been a teammate, but now he’s an old pal.

TK: Anybody out there who gets under your skin?

Dirk: No; I am too old to let the kids annoy me like they do other people. I worked in a mental asylum, too, so that helps.

TK: Do you have a favorite Pro Tour story?

Dirk: There are sooo many good stories, but most of them are not funny when told third-hand. My favorite one is probably the one from Pro Tour: Chicago ’98, the one I won, involving the random Swede in the top 8.

The Swede playing some annoying American kid in the last round for top 8. In Game 3, the American kid (I forget who) is going to win within a few turns. It’s the Swedish guy’s turn. He draws and thinks… thinks… thinks… and then asks a judge if he can go to the bathroom. His hands are totally shaking. The judge says no, but the Swedish guy appeals. Then the Head Judge says yes. So the Swede goes to the bathroom.

In the meantime, the American kid pumping the fist in celebration, because he’s winning next turn with what he has in hand. So the Swedish guy goes to the bathroom, fixes his hair, comes back, smiles… And flips over the top card of his hand that was face-down on the table, and it’s Fanning the Flames for the win.

The kid and his friends were rioting! So stylish. Best slow roll ever.

TK: Rumor has it that you don’t play Magic Online at all? Is that true?

Dirk: I have played maybe thirty matches, which I guess could be summarized as”not at all.”

TK: Why not?

Dirk: It takes too long. I can’t just quit after an hour in the middle of a draft, and I don’t have a lot of time anyway.

TK: Do you read much Magic writing?

Dirk: Yes, I do. Usually at work when I have nothing else to do. I don’t look at the forums and that stuff, but I check most of the articles on the main sites.

TK: is writing today better or worse than three years ago?

Dirk: So-so. It’s sad to see the tourney reports die, but they really are obsolete. Part of it used to be the decklists that everyone wanted, but nowadays everyone has them anyway. And the humor/rant/random writing is ten times better.

TK: What would you like to see more of from the writing community?

Dirk: Actually, what I want is Feature Matches that are worth reading. That is the one thing that annoys me, and there’s a lot of room for improvement. Like, pick them by interesting matchup, not by name only; do fewer, but do them better.

Talk to the players after the match, and ask them what they thought decided the match. Ask them before the match how they feel about the matchup, if they know it. Ask if they’ve played each other before, and what their record is.

TK: So you want a better picture than just the action?

Dirk: Yes. Right now, it’s really boring.

TK: Who’s better at Magic – the Americans or the Europeans?

Dirk: No difference. Although Europeans tend to realize when they’re awful. Americans do not.

TK: The hottest women in the World are from…

Dirk: Hmm. Arab countries. They have few hot ones, but when they’re hot, they’re hot.

TK: Franka Potente (Run Lola, Run) or Heidi Klum (Supermodel)?

Dirk: Oh, man – none of the above, but Franka if I have to choose.

TK: Favorite beer?

Dirk: Becks, but not the kind they export to the US of A.

TK: Wurst or Schnitzel?

Dirk: Schnitzel.

TK: Dortmund, Leverkusen, or Bayern Munich?

Dirk: Bayern. Not close.

TK: Do you like David Hasselhoff?

Dirk: Heh. Actually, I like the A-Team better.

TK: I pity da fool who likes David Hasselhoff!

TK: If you made a caption for this picture, what would it be?

Dirk: Oh my God! Lessee…”You really should either shower or wear socks.”

So there you have it… My attempt to learn more about the mysterious Baberowski, while picking one of the finest (and quietest) Magic minds on the planet for details on one of Magic’s least understood formats.

Huge props to Dirk for taking time out of his extremely busy schedule to do the interview, and also for being a lot of fun during the process. I look forward to catching up with him in Boston and perhaps getting a few more Pro Tour stories for later use.

Random details: The interview was done over IRC and took approximately two hours. For those who are wondering, Dirk speaks and writes better English than I do (he spent some of his High School years in Georgia, USA), so there were no translation issues.

Ted Knutson

The Holy Kanoot

[email protected]