Playing Favorites

Last week, my newly acquired playtest partner Jeff Cunningham, a.k.a. ffej, wrote what was described by Randy Buehler, Grand Wizard Vizier of Magic: the Gathering as – and I quote specifically here – what “could be the best column [he] ha[s] ever read[,]” (emphasis mine). High praise indeed from the lord and master of hocus-pocus and prestidigitation; too high, in fact, to escape notice. Now I must say that your narrator, too, enjoyed ffej’s Time Walk into the ancient days and it jarred me almost bodily into historic reverie. However, instead of telling untold stories as Jeff is doing, I shall highlight some of the greatest stories ever told for the eggs and chicks in the audience.

Last week, my newly acquired playtest partner Jeff Cunningham, a.k.a. ffej, wrote what was described by Randy Buehler, Grand Wizard Vizier of Magic: the Gathering as – and I quote specifically here – what “could be the best column [he] ha[s] ever read[,]” (emphasis mine). High praise indeed from the lord and master of hocus-pocus and prestidigitation; too high, in fact, to escape notice.

Now I must say that your narrator, too, enjoyed ffej’s Time Walk into the ancient days. The return of this great young writer and cuckold after a long hiatus jarred me almost bodily into reverie. As the mists of memory parted, I remembered first meeting ffej across the field of battle, the day he defeated me in what I believe was his premiere grown-up Pro Tour, Bob Maher’s Chicago 1999. We had both made Day Two, despite the fact that neither of our decks were any good. I was for some reason summoning Simian Grunts in a format where I could have been summoning Donate for less mana (“That was the best this deck’s a pile Jon and I ever did,” –Chris Pikula). For his part, ffej appeared to have stolen Alan Comer’s copy of the Cali Nightmare from Worlds 1998; Alan himself was busy making Top 8 of this Pro Tour with Suicide Brown and would not, I think, have noticed the missing deck box.

If you’re wondering whether or not it’s right to make a Hunted Wumpus against a player with Survival of the Fittest in play, or to play Hunted Wumpus in Extended at all, look no further than this paragraph for the answer. I had instructed Adrian [Sullivan] that “our” deck was completely unplayable in that it could never beat a card that I predicted would be in play against us on the second turn of perhaps 40% of our matches in the Pro Tour, but he dismissed my observation as “untested theory,” instead citing a 70% win percentage against Toby Wachter in Rec/Sur playtest. I was pretty sure that our deck was completely out-classed (not to mention poorly-tuned), the round before, when against Jasar Elarar I (correctly?) missed a land drop and played Demonic Consultation to set up the Tithe two-for-one… but no longer had sufficient Savannahs or Scrubland[/author]“][author name="Scrubland"]Scrublands[/author] in my deck to actually get two. Luckily I ripped a Land Grant.

Still in the money hunt, I plugged along, summoning the same Hunted Wumpus turn after turn after turn because, frankly, I had the mana, and moreover wasn’t sure how else I would be able to win. That same Hunted Wumpus came down time and again because – gasp – Jeff had an active Tradewind Rider. No, I don’t think he was actually required to pay more than G for it. An assortment of creatures, including Verdant Force and Spirit of the Night greeted me after two more main phases. Gosh darn it, my Hunted Wumpus tried… but alas Verdant Force’s meddling Saprolings – and, let’s face it, my own deck – kept me from any kind of real offense.

Since then, I have watched ffej blossom from some kid I didn’t recognize into a wit of great wittiness, albeit from afar. I can’t say much for his manners, though, as in his forum last week, I presented “To an Athlete Dying Young” by A.E. Housman (my favorite poet) as a response to the question posed in his column… but got no response from my so-called playtest partner. Conversely, Brian David-Marshall, my good friend and ofttimes collaborator, thinks that ffej is as classy and well manicured a young man as you can find among the late night money draft tables. “If I had a daughter,” BDM once told me, “I would want her to date Jeff Cunningham.”

Strange then, that Brian did not agree with Randy Buehler estimation of Jeff’s first installment of “Untold Legends of the Million Dollar Magic: The Gathering™ Pro Tour.” Don’t get me wrong, Brian liked it just fine, but it wasn’t the best column he had ever read like Randy claimed. Put plainly, “It’s no House of Horrors.”

“Oh, you only think that because you are friends with Dave.”

“No Mike. I wasn’t friends with Dave back then.”

Unlike Untold Legends of the Million Dollar Magic: The Gathering™ Pro Tour, which is in itself a trip down memory lane, to correctly understand House of Horrors and what it means you might in fact have to know a bit of context, put the article in its place in history. More than a little, you’d have to know Dave Price, the character, from the autumn of 1999. Dave had at that point never missed a Pro Tour. From the first wintry battles in New York when he summoned Will-o’-the-Wisp in his Bad Moon Necropotence deck to the glory hard-fought and finally won swinging Mogg Conscripts with the strength of giants, Dave was the working man’s Magic Pro in every sense. He earned his slots with the bodies of fallen amateurs, Tour in and Tour out until he finally proved himself… but was back on the qualifier trail a year later, where he would again have to muster his workmanlike spirit and tireless vigor. There would be tales in later years of Dave almost falling off the Tour… But at every turn, something would save him. He would get that last ratings invitation. He would make Top 32 in a critical Japanese Block event. Even when Dave finally hung up the wand two or three years ago, it was on his own terms: he won a qualifier first and then decided not to attend, scattering the ashes of his Blue Envelope among the corpses of his PTQ victims.

But in the fall of 1999, Dave was still feeling the adrenaline of his first place finish, a year and more behind him. He had graduated in English and Engineering from Cornell University but decided to become a professional Magician instead of following any kind of regular career path (in fact, the one job I’ve ever known him to hold was a short run as Editor-in-Chief of The Dojo, some months before my term). In the fall of 1999, this professional Magic player was in danger of missing a Pro Tour for the first time ever.

The format was Urza’s Block Constructed. The week before the format broke, I ran the event that inspired the Championship Deck Challenge. [Which we will be doing again this year. -Knut] I asked my writers to make Mono-Red decks; unsurprisingly, Dave’s immediately won a PTQ… but not in his hands. He made Top 8 with StOmPy, but couldn’t take it home. He went undefeated on Day One of Grand Prix: Memphis, but his U/R Control deck failed him against Day Two’s stronger competition. He was a dedicated player and man, but a mite beaten down. He had one last shot to make PT: Chicago, a fifteen hour drive from Philadelphia to St. Louis, Missouri for two days of grueling PTQ, and he wasn’t about to let it pass. Because it was the weekend of Halloween, Dave chose to play not his qualifier winning Red Deck, not his trusty Little Green Men, but a Horror theme deck. Yes, a Horror theme deck including such hits as Vebulid, Flesh Reaver and Lurking Evil.

After the long drive, I spent the night in a Motel 6. I woke up early the next morning and drove to the tournament site to find it crawling with people. Magic players had driven from all over the Midwest. Derek Rank and a dozen or so other people drove to St. Louis from Chicago. Chad Ellis of Team Your Move Games flew in from Boston. Somebody was there from California, I heard. This wasn’t going to be easy.

House of Horrors begins on a sad note. The very last weekend to qualify for Chicago, Dave is playing in an eight round, four slot qualifier… but picks up three Swiss losses and doesn’t make the cut.

Somebody walked up to me that evening and said, “Is your next Dojo article going to be as depressing as last week’s was?” I said, “I won’t know until after the one-spot PTQ tomorrow.” Someone else asked me “Was the fifteen hour drive worth it?” I said, “I’ll let you know tomorrow.

Ultimately I’ll spoil the story and tell you that House of Horrors ends on an uplifting note for everyone but Chad Ellis (as if you hadn’t figured that out already)… Its triumph is why this article is Brian David-Marshall favorite. House of Horrors mixes a deep dramatic nadir, the characteristic Price humor, a little luck, and the happy ending that Brian finds compelling and worth review. It reminds him just how good a Magic article can be.

Surprisingly, everyone was gone. I figured that there would at least be four less people for the PTQ on Sunday, but I wasn’t expecting this. There was no one. 38 people registered for the tournament and two were disqualified in the first round for playing with Standard decks.

I like those odds.

House of Horrors,

by David Price, Goblin Nabob

Unlike BDM, Jon Becker does not have a single article that he loves more than any others. Actually he does, so I just lied. Jon technically does love a single article more than every other, but it isn’t an uplifting story or eye-opening technical primer; it’s not the kind of article that you might think of when you imagine yourself logging into a Magic: the Gathering website or forum. A noncommittal attorney, Jon listed “Bruce Cowley’s reports, Shuler’s ‘How I Won Mid-Atlantic Regionals With My Song of Blood Deck,’ Shuler’s ‘bye bye pyroblast’ — that one was awesome — and ‘Stop Being So Casual’ by Aaron Forsythe” among his faves in order to mask his number one in a sea of noted finishes.

Now certain among these have been featured elsewhere, and I’ve read most of Jon’s selections, but the one article that he has saved on his computer in case Cathy’s site goes down like the original Dojo, his super special girlfriend among Magic articles, is MarchHare’s The Redemption Report. According to Jon:

“Redemption was a short-lived, biblically-based card game where the goal was to save the most souls. Cards representing Good and Evil squared off, with one player using their ‘good’ cards to try to save souls, and the other player using their ‘evil’ cards to impede the saving. Both players used ‘good’ and ‘evil’ cards… But since the only way to ‘win’ was to save the most souls, and even if your ‘evil’ cards did their jobs, the end result was that you could save soul X rather than your opponent – so all available souls were ultimately saved, and ‘good’ always won. It was just a question of which of the players was more successful at saving souls.

“In any event, as you might predict, the game was designed horribly, and the only way it was palatable was to make the ‘souls’ you were saving shots of Yukon Jack or some such. The relevant portion of this long-winded explanation for this ‘tournament’ report, is that it is a bible-based game. The report uses this platform to poke fun at Magic players and tournaments alike in what I find to be a tremendously clever parallel to a lot of reports. I always laugh at this one, and I have probably read it twenty times. Any article that can glibly work in the line ‘[who plays] Saul of Tarsus maindeck without Road to Damascus?’ is a winner in my book.”

Much like Jon Becker average draft deck, this article doesn’t in any coherent way intersect with Magic: the Gathering strategy as we know it. Perhaps they have lots of 2/7 Spiders or 1/5 Vigilance creatures in Redemption.

The Redemption Report,

by MarchHare (our forums’ own Otter Driver!)

During my research for this article, I was informed of a queer fact regarding my buddy Jon Becker. Now I have a great respect for Jon and consider him a close friend. He read at my wedding and even left a spare car in the parking lot with the keys in the ignition and an American Express card under one seat should I require a quick getaway, assistance in dodging the matrimonial bullet, etc. ad infinitum. A generous man if ever there was one, Jon once slipped a stripper an extra $20 after she had already been paid for for me. “No, no, I’ve already been taken care of,” pleaded what can only be described as the most absolutely perfect – and scrupulous – stripper on the face of the earth (or at least at Scores on the night of my bachelor party). “I know,” retorted Becker. “It’s just that you did such a good job with Mike, it’s like you danced for everyone(!) who could see and you should get paid extra.” As much as I like Jon, he has a reputation for being a glum curmudgeon, unyielding with his writing pen as he is with an attack for more than, say, one point from a 1/2 flyer (probably with vigilance). But when Jon writes, he rouses big men with big names to his cause, eliciting ffej-like praise from such famous characters as the Fat Man. Just before he gave up one of the most dominating seasons we’ve seen from any American since Jon Finkel to “break the cards before they see print rather than after,” Mike Turian declared Becker the writer of the single greatest Magic article in the year 2003.

“I know I am supposed to be talking about Consume Spirit, but for a second let’s talk about spirit instead. Jon Becker wrote the best Magic article this year in Tomfidence. I thought it did a great job of informing people what they needed to succeed. If you missed it, go check it out; it is a shorter read than Holes at any rate.”

Mike has taught me a great deal and influenced my thought in more ways than you probably expect. He is also much better at Magic than you probably are, so I suggest you take his advice and check out the slightly dated Becker piece; it’s certainly younger than any other article in this retrospective. And anyway, I won’t argue with the excellence of any article whose core examples center around Constructed seasons wherein I make the best decks.


by Jon Becker “Tongo’s Counsel”

Despite the fact that I ended up graduating college with honors, I did very poorly in my freshman Psychology class. The only reason I studied Psychology at all was because I read the Foundation novels in my Junior year of high school and began a worshipful adoration of Isaac Asimov, as if he were some sort of messianic religious leader like, you know, his buddy L. Ron Hubbard. As such I can’t really tell you what forces are at work in the formation of my character, Magic or otherwise, but I have certain suspicions formed primarily by watching late night science fiction programs. There is this episode of Highlander where Duncan McLeod encounters this terrible female immortal – you know, one of those characters who must definitely die for her unspeakable crimes before the next episode – but can’t take her head in the end when pressed to the duel. “I just couldn’t,” McLeod pleads with his friend Methos, the first and mightiest of the Immortals. There is some exchange about “chivalry” and Methos says that Duncan’s reluctance stems entirely from something that was “popular when he was a teenager.” In a dramatic move that represents his first swordfight in 200 years, wherein the audience believes that the rusty protagonist may in fact fall to the murderous villainette herself, Methos takes the b*tch’s head successfully.

Duncan was paralyzed by an idea of chivalry that from far away seems nakedly noble. But for the title character, some hundreds of years old, chivalry was merely the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or New Kids on the Block of his formative childhood. Because I’ve been in Magic since almost its first year, played on the Pro Tour from the second season, I often feel shackled by modes of thought that were popular when I was a “kid” in my theoretical development. I shy always away from complicated combinations and strive for single card efficiency because of the Kim School – I compare every format to the original Rock, Paper, Scissors of the post-Pro Tour One Type Two metagame. At the end of the day, more or less everything I know is colored by what I perceived in the year 1996, regardless of who told me or how valuable that information ended up being.

1996 was the year that I was introduced to Rob Hahn. I did not end up actually meeting the Sophist for at least another year or two, but he was a hero of mine from the first. His Schools of Magic introduced a new way of looking at the game for me. Before Schools of Magic, I played in a vacuum. I played with my friends, maybe, but the extent of my technology was figuring out Hymn to Tourach and Hypnotic Specter in the same deck or that perhaps I should consider pairing Kird Ape with the one Taiga in my trade binder. I had no clue about even moderately complicated strategies like the Weissman fortress or for sequencing a series of turns to play for a specific plan (other than emptying the opponent’s hand for The Rack, that is). Schools was my first exposure to the nuanced theories of a game that would dominate my free time for the next decade, at least… And it wasn’t just me.

To give you an idea of how important Schools of Magic was, back when BDM was a tournament organizer rather than ace reporter, he let Rob attend his events for free. Rob was interested in watching how games developed, cataloguing and categorizing the prevailing strategies, and chronicling the development of Magic within the game. Rob was an underrated and innovative thinker who actually invented the aggro-control strategy. He was never the best tournament player, but the fact that he wrote about what happened to him created a richness in the game that did not exist on any grand scale beforehand. Brian saw that and thought it would be good for Magic in general, not to mention free press for his events.

Back in 1996, to Internet nerds who didn’t realize how much better Jon Finkel was than everyone else anyway, Rob was a god.

Because of that, reading Tourney Report: NYC Pro Tour Qualifier changed my life. Anyone with any understanding of the development of Magic theory and publication on the Internet recognizes Schools of Magic as the most seminal of seminal texts, but it lacked the resonance of Rob’s one truly successful tournament report. Because I first read Schools of Magic one day… and Rob won his PTQ more or less the next, a connection between the two appeared in my mind: writing leads to Pro Tour, which leads to untold riches and naked women. The dominoes didn’t fall exactly in that order for me, but as I knew even less then than I do now, I proceeded to sculpt what seems like my entire adult life after a poorly formatted tournament report I happened to stumble on in the computer lab one afternoon.

I started writing, modeling myself lamely after the Sophist. Like Rob – or at least like I perceived – I made it to the Pro Tour almost immediately after. Both were important to me because I had a vague idea that English majors were unemployable after college and thought maybe I could pick up some sort of gig if I sharpened my quill finely enough… and there was even a time I fancied myself good enough to go Pro in actuality as well as name. It was the Million Dollar Pro Tour after all, as ffej reminds us.

Rob nabbed the Editor job at The Duelist the year I graduated from college. From that position, he was instrumental in setting me up with my first professional writing gig, working with Mark Rosewater on a series focusing on news and development both in (Mark) and out (me) of Renton, WA. As susceptible to his charisma as any other mortal, the next summer, I actually dropped out of law school to work at Rob’s fabulously unsuccessful startup, The Dojo, which he had taken over from Frank Kusumoto (they may actually still be holding my scholarship for me; I’m not sure and have never inquired as I do not really want to be a lawyer and in fact moved my Civil Procedure final so that I could battle at Casey McCarrell’s PT: New York 1999). Back in the nineties, I didn’t mind visiting New York for PTQs, but believe it or not, I was intimidated by, and actively disliked, the City when I was in school. Cured of such wrongheadedness, today I am a die hard New Yorker, entirely because of Hahn’s transplant for a job that lasted only a few months.

Now I doubt seriously that your life is going to change in a fundamental way because you read this tournament report. In fact, some of the conclusions that Rob makes on the way to winning the tournament, even, are laughable. He takes a 64-card deck all the way to the Blue Envelope. That said, he shows strong anticipation of the metagame, picking an anti-deck… despite the fact that he first faces his targeted Necropotence deck in the elimination rounds.

A lot of people have a lot of strong opinions on Rob, as a person, as a theorist, and – cuckoo as it seems to me – as a writer, even. What you can’t argue with, though, is Rob’s charisma. Rob is the proverbial salesman who can sell snow to an Eskimo. He sold me on more than one life changing decision; I’ll let him sell himself:

Tourney Report: NYC Pro Tour Qualifier,

by Robert “the Sophist” Hahn



Bonus Section:

I’ve already read ffej’s article on Ben Rubin for today. As a member of the legendary Academy, I get the advance copies of DVDs Magic articles, albeit without the bonus feature commentaries like “[‘You are a pompous ass.’ -Knut]” and must say that the recollection of Ben Rubin warms my heart and got the old gears moving. Though Ben and I were both members of the Underground due to our association with the Dragonmaster, I think I can safely say that we were oblivious to the fact that we may have ever been teammates… on a team whose lifetime membership could be counted on two hands, maximum, whose baseline credo, as explained to me by Lan D. Ho, was to “team only with your friends.” That said, my strongest memory of Ben is listening to him when he suggested that I buy out a slot to the Pro Tour in a matchup wherein I was at that point 14-0 in sanctioned games. Clearly he is as influential and charismatic as Hahn. Even armed with the coveted and purchased Blue Envelope, I did not actually attend that Pro Tour.

Inspired, however, with the Ben Rubin retrospective, I decided to go back for a look at what we used to call “A Happy Accident.” You see Ben speaks about a certain matchup with a certain Grand Wizard Vizier of Magic: the Gathering from one side of the table, some seven years removed, but luckily, we can view the same through the dusty lens of Randy’s own post-LA tournament report. In case you didn’t know, before he was the Director of Magic Development, Randy was basically the hottest American player outside of Finkel himself, and unlike many players of that caliber, contributed several noteworthy tournament reports. Despite the Sliver archetype’s eventual ascent in polychromatic form, to my knowledge, LA is the only Pro Tour wherein Randy plays a Metallic Sliver theme deck, certainly the only time when Metallic Sliver cracked more than one Constructed Top 16 (11th in the hands of the Underground’s Brian Schneider, then of Team CMU, now also of Wizards R&D).

Buehler’s PT-LA Report (Top 16),

by Randy Buehler