A few days ago, my friend Justin Cohen asked me why I was working so hard on the deck I played at States. It was the night before, and I was playing catch-up on all the work I would need to do to hopefully be competitive in the tournament, way behind where I wanted to be because of the work I put into Valencia.
“What does it matter? It’s just States.”
In some places, States doesn’t matter. Wisconsin is not one of those places.
In many ways, we’re a lucky bunch of people around these parts. Long ago, when it came to Wisconsin Magic, the only place to be was Madison. Eventually, led by then vegan emo-boy, now park ranger extraordinaire Jacob “Danger” Janoska, Milwaukee joined the fray, following the trail blazed by Brian Kowal. As more time passed and the tournament scene became explored territory, other groups joined the mix (perhaps most notably the “Two-Headed specialists” out of the Janesville area), and Wisconsin has enjoyed a pretty vibrant Magic scene. A lot of this is in no small part related to a fantastic tournament organizer, Steve Port.
Some of you might know Steve Port if you’ve been to the Pro Tour as the guy “most likely to be running side events”. He also runs a pair of stores, one in Madison and the other up in the land of Prince, the Twin Cities, many hours to the north. Aside from helping to foster Magic here in town when at some many moments it might have withered and died, he’s helped make States an incredibly competitive event by virtue of its prize: one year of free events at any event he runs, or run by any of the other tournament organizers in the area.
What this means is that by winning in Wisconsin, every PTQ, every prerelease, every little tiny event he runs, including the occasional Grand Prix, or a side event, is free. This adds up fast. I’ve compared notes with other winners who milked their free events, and you can quite easily wrack up quite a tab on free events. For those fanatics (like me) who are likely to go to most events anyway, it already becomes meaningful. Add onto that, however, the incentive to go to events you might not already go to, and suddenly you’re approaching a prize that has on more than one occasion been worth a grand to the winner.
Qualifying for the Pro Tour is hard. I think it’s gotten harder to qualify for the Pro Tour than it has to actually stay on it, at least around here. Magic, in some ways, is a lot like golf. If you’re playing against a lot of people of reasonably similar skill, even if you are better than them, it might take you several rounds before you win one. Think about the PTQs that you’ve been to where you see the best player in the room win. It absolutely happens, but there are a ton of times that you see that person come close, or even just scrub out. We’re shuffling cards, and giving yourself he most opportunities that you possibly can is a real key to getting yourself on the Pro Tour. Winning at States can easily make you decide to make the leap towards going for it, or if you already are going for it, make it a lot cheaper to try, in this land of incredibly high gas prices.
But long before any of that, there was my first States.
The year of Rob Castro, a.k.a. “Wisconsin State Champ, 1997,” with Five-Color Green
This was everyone’s first States. It was the first States, as far as I’m aware. Only 90 people showed up – a ton of regular players didn’t even bother. We played at this huge country bar out in the boonies, and I’m pretty sure that there had been square dancing or line dancing or some such thing like that there the night before. As best as I can figure, I played this:
Green Machine ’97
Adrian Sullivan, 6th Place
4 Llanowar Elves
2 Fyndhorn Elves
4 Fallow Earth
3 Stunted Growth
4 Nevinyrral’s Disk
2 Icy Manipulator
4 Uktabi Wildcats
4 Waiting in the Weeds
2 Sylvan Library
2 Gaea’s Blessing
1 Soldevi Digger
4 Thawing Glaciers
2 Icy Manipulator
2 Emerald Charm
2 Barbed Foliage
3 Elephant Gras
2 Taste of Paradise
2 City of Solitude
There are a lot of mistakes in this list, but that’s okay. What’s worse is that I should have actually played a completely different deck. Craig Sivils and I had discovered the incredibly powerful Squandered Stasis deck, and it was legal for the event. In the end, I didn’t play it because I was overly confident in other peoples’ abilities to scour the Internet, and was sure everyone would know about the deck and be able to just smash it. Oh well.
I would play against eventual champion Rob Castro in the quarterfinals, and it wasn’t a particularly pleasant match, with us both being a bit silly. We were young and immature, and I’m glad that we’ve become good friends in the years since that time. We rehash our match from time to time over the years, with a lot more laughter now.
Rob Castro will always be our first state champ. These days, I always get a smile thinking about it.
The year of Ponza — Jake Welch beat Bob Maher in the finals, 1998
The State Championship crown would stay in Milwaukee the next year, with Jake Welch’s spectacular victory over Bob Maher in the finals. Maher was playing Academy (though not the best Academy deck around at the time — that honor belongs to that year’s Illinois State Champion Chris Warren), and Jake Welch was playing 62-card Ponza Red, with one uncastable Grizzly Bears in the board.
“Ponza’s so good, you only need 14 cards in your board,” he would say.
We drew in the Swiss in a pretty spectacular match where he destroyed nineteen of my lands, but I still managed to keep Shard Phoenix going to stay alive. Three Wildfires and an Apocalypse would not keep me off of my land!
Try as I might, I can’t find my Counter-Phoenix list for this event. It was co-designed by Brian Kowal, and I remember it being really, really good. Still, though, I should have played Academy. Our deck did okay against Academy, but despite Welch winning with Ponza over it in the finals, I still am sure it was the deck to play. Alas.
The Milwaukee Three-peat year — Waiken Soo wins with Rector/Bargain, 1999
I don’t really have any stories from this year. I was living in New York, working with Mike Flores and company at The Dojo when this States hit. I would hear from everyone about Waiken’s win, and I hope that sometime over the year’s I’ve known him I’ve given him the hearty congratulations that he deserved.
I didn’t even play in New York States, either. I think a part of me felt like I hadn’t lived there long enough for it to make sense, though that sounds silly to me now. I was pretty young, and really didn’t understand that Brian David-Marshall would have been happy to have me play, I’m sure. Alas!
The Hron years — Mike Hron wins with Fires of Yavimaya, 2000 and 2001
Back in the day, back before you probably heard of Mike Hron, he was a college kid, freshly moved to Madison. The core group of Madison players largely played in people’s houses at this time, since the reigning store at which to play at the time had alienated its players so much that no one bothered to visit. Mike started showing up for drafts and had begun to establish himself as a solid up-and-comer.
Fast forward a tiny bit to States, and Mike would put together a mostly last-minute Fires of Yavimaya deck that was just full of solid, big things. It had the Blastoderms and the Saproling Bursts and all of the usual suspects. In the following year, he would do the same thing, but he’d play with a large number of weenie guys instead. This time, his deck was largely designed by Manchester Sy, the Filipino mastermind (and occasional national team member).
I went back into my archives, and for the life of me I can’t find what I played either of these years. After much hand-wringing, it looks like I didn’t play in either of them. A trip to the DCI database confirms it. Yikes! Three years of not playing States! What was I thinking?! I’d better play in it…
The year of Burning Ponza — Adrian Sullivan wins with Ponza, 2002
This was the year of Madness. Blue/Green was the deck to beat, with Slide just beginning to be on the radar, and still causing a slight stir in this event (“Can you believe that guy was playing Renewed Faith? I can’t believe I lost to that crap!”). I had been playing Ponza for years now, ever since Brian Kowal first christened the archetype back in Tempest Block (with such a brilliant deck, too).
Here’s what I ended up winning with:
4 Volcanic Hammer
3 Violent Eruption
3 Burning Wish
1 Jeska, Warrior Adept
4 Blistering Firecat
3 Fledgling Dragon
2 Dwarven BlastmiSer
3 Barbarian Ring
4 Forgotten Cave
4 Petrified Field
1 Lightning Surge
1 Slice and Dice
3 Spitting Earth
2 Flaming Gambit
2 Flaring Pain
1 Price of Glory
This was one of those decks where you just felt like you could do no wrong all day. If you’ve ever won a tournament handily, you know what I mean. Every round, I felt like I was on top of my opponent. I remember one opponent with a Circle of Protection: Red out, and a majillion mana, and they had that satisfied look on their face like they couldn’t possibly lose. Burning Wish for Lightning Surge, play it at Threshold, flash it back, and Barbarian Ring/Petrified Field the Ring for the win. I remember one other game, playing against Psychatog, that really sticks out in my mind. I played a first turn “Mountain, Bolt You” — you know, the play that your mom told you was always wrong to make. My opponent looked at me like I was an idiot, but I was the one who had tested this matchup so extensively that I knew it was correct. He couldn’t possibly withstand straight fire to the face if I put it at him from turn 1. His only hope, if he knew the matchup, was to drop an overly aggressive Psychatog and not save back a counter on that turn, and then hope it all worked out. But he didn’t know that. Going rogue has its advantages…
This is one of those decks with “weird numbers” that was exhaustively tested until each and every single card felt just right. Having the perfect 75 cards is such a fantastic feeling.
One of the things that was so great about this event was the context of it all. John Shuler had come up from Virginia to visit a bunch of us and see exactly what a Madison Halloween was like. He hung out with a bunch of us (most notably Brian Kowal, Joel Priest, and Jim Hustad) and just watched us play Magic. Afterwards we all went out to a fantastic bar and sat in opulent surroundings while Madison rioted around us. (Literally… Shuler’s pictures of the damage done to downtown afterwards were both depressing and exciting to behold.)
The other day, I came across a card from Shuler with the play-by-play of the entire tournament. I looked through it, smiling at the memories. Thanks, John.
The year of the upset — Lucas Duchow wins with Red/White Astral Slide, 2003
This was the “upset win,” just in joking name, among some people. The two big Magic cities at the time had always been only Madison or Milwaukee. Duchow was an Appleton player, outside of the classic rivalry of the two major cities. We had always vied back and forth for the State title and now this “outsider” would win it, disrupting our rivalry!
Lucas was already a very well-known figure at the time. Five Color inventor Kurt Hahn wrote a short report about the event, and his win was also an upset largely because he managed to defeat a number of Madison players, led by Adam Kugler, who had designed a particularly solid Affinity deck. This was pre-Ravager, so it wasn’t the insanity that it would soon become, but it was still quite exciting. I remember being impressed by Kugler’s other Affinity deck that he was working on that he said was actually better than the one that they had played, but he couldn’t get it tuned in time. It was running silly cards like Disciple of the Vault, among other things. As I prepared for the Pro Tour, I remember wishing that it had just been scheduled sooner, because long, long before Kobe we already had a fantastic Affinity deck, and by the time I got there, not only had the rest of the world found out the same things that the Madison group had, but our desperate hunger to get an edge in the matchup warped the sideboard of the deck into something almost unusable. Alas.
At this States, though, I played, again, mono-Red, albeit something a little different than before.
Adrian Sullivan/Adam Kugler/Ben Dempsey
4 Raging Goblin
4 Goblin Sledder
4 Goblin Piledriver
4 Goblin Warchief
4 Slith Firewalker
4 Blistering Firecat
4 Pyrite Spellbomb
4 Shrapnel Blast
2 Volcanic Hammer
2 Hammer of Bogardan
3 Goblin Burrows
4 Great Furnace
4 Chrome Mox
3 Dwarven Blastminer
2 Stalking Stones
I wrote more extensively about this deck a long time ago, but essentially, I was incredibly, incredibly happy with the deck. I definitely made one major error: I should have played with 3 Flashfires and only 2 Blastminer in the board, or maybe even found room for 4 Flashfires. I would lose rounds 1 and 2 to the Dawn Elemental/Worship combo, sided in by White Weenie.
I absolutely adored this deck, in general. It was one of those decks where you just felt incredibly confident sitting against anyone. That year, so many control decks were able to beat pure Goblin decks, and this deck would almost always just wipe the floor with them by accidentally getting in some ridiculous amount of damage off something. Other than slightly changing the sideboard, I’d definitely do it all the same again.
A good 73 or 74 cards is so far off from the perfect 75, though. Alas.
The year of redemption — Adam Kugler wins with Kooky-Jooky, 2004
This was a great year. Kugler would come back from the previous year, and win the whole thing with the Kooky-Jooky deck. Deckbuilding gurus Brian Kowal and Ben Dempsey had been independently working on their own build of a Kiki-Jiki deck, and when we brought our ideas together, eventually we ended up with a fantastic deck. I playtested the deck a ton with Adam Kugler, and he ended up deciding to pilot it as well.
Brian Kowal, Adrian Sullivan, and Ben Dempsey
4 Birds of Paradise
4 Sakura-Tribe Elder
4 Eternal Witness
4 Viridian Shaman
3 Hearth Kami
4 Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker
4 Commune with Nature
4 Magma Jet
2 Sensei’s Divining Top
2 City of Brass
1 Okina, Temple to the Grandfathers
1 Pinecrest Ridge
3 Plow Under
3 Cranial Extraction
3 Electrostatic Bolt
This deck was so ridiculously good in the metagame, I’m not surprised that it ended up dominating the way it did, going something like 24-3-4 in the combined Swiss. That’s three match losses among three different players. Several other people played the deck as well, but made major changes to the deck and didn’t end up finishing as well.
I wrote more extensively about the deck way back then. I ended up losing to Josh Tabac, playing an aggressive Affinity deck that I had designed, which was the only Affinity deck I found that could put up an impressive not-quite 50/50 match result, rather than simply being trounced.
Kugler was in great form all day. He was so happy playing the deck, and again and again would have a story of some fun moment that had happened. Especially after his previous year, he was riding high on the results from the tourney, and I’m really happy that he won (even if it wasn’t me, hehe).
The year of the semi-repeat — Adrian Sullivan wins with Eminent Domain, 2005
This was a perfect example of one of those moments that almost feels like something has happened before, but hadn’t exactly. Back to back, I’d worked on decks that were brand-spanking new and rogue, and they had won. It was the second time that I’d won it, but the delay in between wins makes it feel like not exactly something to call a “repeat.” And once again, people in different places played the deck and did very well with it, but this time, I didn’t know who some of the people were.
This marked the first time I really worked on a deck with Vintage specialist and ICBM head-man [email protected] Degraff. He’s a really fun guy, and somehow or other, as I was telling him about my ideas about running an Annex–Wildfire deck, he just got excited. Maybe it was because of all of the old cards in the deck, like Icy Manipulator. Regardless, he was really great to work with. Here’s what we ended up with:
Adrian Sullivan with [email protected] Degraff
3 Keiga, The Tide Star
3 Kokusho, The Evening Star
4 Dream Leash
4 Icy Manipulator
3 Spectral Searchlight
4 Dimir Signet
4 Dimir Aqueduct
4 Shivan Reef
4 Tendo Ice Bridge
2 Mikokoro, Center of the Sea
1 Minamo, School’s Edge
2 Miren, The Moaning Well
1 Oboro, Palace in the Clouds
1 Shinka, The Bloodsoaked Keep
1 Shizo, Death’s Storehouse
3 Soratami Savant
2 Overwhelming Intellect
3 Shadow of Doubt
There is so much innovation in this deck, I just love it. While I wrote a detailed article or two about it at the time, so much of this deck never seemed to me to get the credit it deserved, despite its fantastic record (three people play it, three people make Top 8, in two separate states). I was one of the early adopters of Remand, identifying it as the best two-mana counterspell in the format, regardless of its inability to stop a spell permanently. The combination of Annex/Wildfire found in Eminent Domain is still something that I think was incredibly innovative. And finally, I was an early adopter of the so-called “Karoo,” putting them in the deck for all of the reasons that people would eventually put them in their decks of all sorts. Aqueduct let you cheat at your mana counts, running fewer actual land, while giving you the mana you required for your heftier spells later. Its application with Wildfire was also very noteworthy, and its ability to help you fix your colors (and thus run an “off-color” card like Kokusho) was huge.
[email protected] and I just ran roughshod over people all day. They had no idea what was hitting them. All throughout the preparations for the event, [email protected] had been pushing again and again for more heavy hitters, and in the end, it was his influence that got the Kokushos into the deck, an addition that gave us both so many wins, that I have to thank my lucky stars that he convinced me to get them in there.
The year of the miss — Levi Stenz wins with Orzhov Control, 2006
If this was the year of the miss, it was the year of the miss for me. I’d spent the whole time working on a Locket of Yesterdays control deck, and it didn’t end up being the deck to play, in retrospect. Again, [email protected] and I slaved away and slaved away at the deck, but in the end, I think we took a swing and a miss.
Eventual champion, Levi Stenz, would play a variant of the Black/White control decks that was making the rounds at the time, very similar to the Black/White control decks that many of us in the area had been working on forever, and that had made splashes throughout the country. From my own perspective, it was also a slight miss largely because I don’t remember Levi making the trek to too many PTQs, so it was sad that the awesome free events prize hadn’t been put to more use.
I ended up playing this:
Adrian Sullivan and [email protected] Degraff
4 Locket of Yesterday
4 Whispers of the Muse
4 Compulsive Research
3 Careful Consideration
1 Akroma, Angel of Wrath
1 Debtor’s Knell
4 Wrath of God
3 Spell Burst
3 Azorius Signet
1 Tolarian Ruins
4 Hallowed Fountain
2 Calciform Pools
2 Adarkar Wastes
The deck was so close to being the right call for the event. This would be the year that Brian Kowal would design This Girl, and it would have a slew of its pilots in the Top 8 all over (including giving Mike Flores his own State Championship title). I would lose in the last round of the event to Pat Foehling, playing a variant with one Niv-Mizzet, the card that would eventually give him the quadruple top-deck he needed to beat me ever so barely, much to his laughing delight.
Maybe I would play the deck all over again, if I had the choice again. It was certainly powerful. I do know that something about it was wrong. There are those tournaments where you have a deck that is almost completely correct. And there are those tournaments where you know your deck is good, but you also know that something about it is wrong, and you’re not sure what. This is one of those decks.
The year of Memphis’s replay — Mike Jones wins with Garruk’s Pickles Prison, 2007
There was this tournament about a thousand years ago in Memphis. It was the Grand Prix, and Brian Kowal and I had worked incredibly diligently on deck after deck before we came to the following deck:
Adrian Sullivan and Brian Kowal
4 Yavimaya Elder
4 Albino Troll
3 Powder Keg
3 Stroke of Genius
2 Power Sink
4 Treetop Village
2 Faerie Conclave
2 Arcane Laboratory
1 Simian Grunt
1 Powder Keg
While the numbers are something that I’m sure would make some cringe, I will easily defend all 60 cards of the main, although the sideboard is definitely weaker than it has any right to be. I would end up making Top 8 of Grand Prix: Memphis with this deck, but in the end, it would be Mikey P. who won the whole thing with his Squirrel-Prison deck.
Squirrel Prison and Con-Troll would both see a lot of play in the PTQ season after that, but it was widely believed that Squirrel Prison was the better deck. Personally, though I might be wrong, I always viewed them both as being too similar in strength to easily declare one better than the other. Con-Troll had the ability to morph, like the Rock, to beat literally any opponent. Squirrel Prison was more powerful in its own right, but much easier to defeat as well. Whatever the case may be, the fight between the two replayed itself in the finals of the Wisconsin State Champs.
Here is Brian Kowal’s deck:
I can tell Brian is right when he says that the deck is insane. He only lost five games the whole tournament, two of them being flood followed by screw in the finals. As Bertrand Lestree used to say, “That is the game of Magic.”
Mike Jones, the eventually champion, was playing a very similar deck, but his build included the Pickles combo. Whether or not Brian had the upper hand in the matchup, it still reminds me largely of the Con-Troll/Squirrel Prison dichotomy of years past. Back at Grand Prix, I lost to Opposition from an Enchantress deck, but the way my deck was built, I’m pretty sure I was a large underdog in that matchup, and against Squirrel Prison, more generally. I could easily alter the deck to make them a large underdog, but that wasn’t the deck that I took to the tournament on that day.
Looking at this list with Brian in the days before the tournament, I knew that I liked a lot about the deck. I really would have loved to play a Con-Troll redux, but there was definitely something that felt off to me about the deck. Looking at the list, there still is. I ended up playing something entirely different, largely because I had so little time before the event to get a handle on what to do with the deck, and I felt like I was so much closer to having my other deck actually ready.
I’m pretty sure that Brian’s deck, as an object to be examined, is flawed. That said, I’m also pretty sure that the flawed version of his deck is far better than the perfected versions of most of the decks that you’d have seen this weekend. My own deck, for example, I’m almost completely happy with in terms of the main deck, though I’m not as happy about seven of the board cards. Kowal’s deck, on the other hand, strikes me as both better than my deck, but also has me much less confident that it is correctly built.
What to do, what to do? If I’d had more time, I definitely would have worked on his deck, and satisfied myself about the card choices in it. I know that BK says he wouldn’t change a single card, but for me, I just didn’t have that kind of confidence, and I didn’t have the time, and I didn’t have the ability to scour for a ton of cards for two decks, just in case my concerns about his deck were valid.
As this format recedes into the past, it’s possible that his sixty cards will prove themselves over the test of time, and we’ll see that his deck was the right set of cards for the event, to a tee. As for me, I’m still glad that I ended up playing what I did, even if I’m sure it wasn’t as good as Kowal’s deck now.
Next week, unless my editor forces my hand, I’ll go into detail about my States deck (it’s Mono-Red).
Once again, Wisconsin’s champions:
1997 — Rob Castro — Five-Color Green
1998 — Jake Welch — Ponza
1999 — Waiken Soo — Rector/Bargain
2000 — Mike Hron — Classic Fires of Yavimaya
2001 — Mike Hron — Weenie Fires of Yavimaya
2002 — Adrian Sullivan — Ponza
2003 — Lucas Duchow — Red/White Astral Slide
2004 — Adam Kugler — Kooky-Jooky
2005 — Adrian Sullivan — Eminent Domain
2006 — Levi Stenz — Orzhov Control
2007 — Mike Jones — Garruk’s Pickles Prison
Congratulation, Mike, on the great finish. (But I was still rooting for Kowal…)