The scene: My good friend Jesse Roberts’s parents’ house. We’re a couple of 14-year-old Dungeons and Dragons gamers taking a break to try this new game some of Jesse’s friends turned him onto.
While I had technically played a game of Magic: The Gathering last year, 1993, with my cousin Matt Emerick, neither of us had had a clue as to the rules. D&D won out that day (well, and Street Fighter II).
Back to Jesse’s. He teaches me how to play and it seems like it will be fun. I had no cards, so I came up with the idea of “drafting” cards from his collection (an idea inspired by my fantasy league football / baseball days).
My first pick? Fireball (strategy tip for the week: X-spells are good in draft). After a second pick Craw Wurm, I end up G/R in what amounts to basically a Revised Rochester draft, with a few cards from Legends and The Dark.
While Jesse and I had been drafting with his brother Chris and friend Mike, it was Jesse and his Mono-B deck I played Round 1. Royal Assassin was harsh, but at least I could Lightning Bolt it. Frozen Shade, though, clearly I had underestimated this card. It was a 16/17 by turn 7…
Yes, this was draft, and yes, he didn’t even have seven lands in play. He just kept pumping it. Read the Revised Frozen Shade. What a savage beating!
That was the first game of Magic I ever lost.
While I sat on the sidelines, sick with it, watching Jesse play his brother’s Alabaster Potion / Personal Incarnation deck, I couldn’t help but feel as though it hadn’t been fair. Chris plowing Jesse’s Shade and dropping Karma was little consolation.
I read the rulebook, cover to cover, that afternoon. I was right! I had been cheated! I hadn’t known how specifically, but now I did. In those days, abilities only lasted until end of turn unless they said otherwise. My Craw Wurm and War Mammoth should have been able to take that Shade.
While I was vindicated, I also learned a very valuable lesson. I can only blame myself for losing as a result of not knowing the rules to the fullest.
Sure, my opponent had learned to play less than a week prior, but this is a complicated game. Heaven forbid someone should try to misrepresent the rules on purpose.
1. Always know the rules of the game before you play.
One year later, it’s 1995 and Ice Age is the new set. I am playing my, at the time, 11-year-old brother Jeff.
My “Ante Deck” was:
9 Orcish Librarian
This was actually the deck I used to convince my playgroups that we should be playing “tournament legal” all of the time (and not just in tournaments, as some of them argued).
Now we weren’t playing for ante, it left us free to experiment. This particular day, I ran a B/U/R deck with Dark Ritual, Hypnotic Specter, Sengir Vampire, Mind Twist, Hymn to Tourach, Counterspell, Control Magic, Serendib Efreet, Lightning Bolt, Fireball, and The Rack.
My brother didn’t have quite the collection I did. His Mono-Black deck packed Mindstab Thrull, Breeding Pit, Ebon Praetor, and most every Black card in Fallen Empires (admittedly including Hymn to Tourach and Order of the Ebon Hand). All my cards seemed to wreck his. I burned his men, countered his Hymn, and Mind Twisted him with The Rack in play.
Then he cast Necropotence.
My whole perspective of Magic changed that turn when he Necro’d for ten.
Ice Age had been out for just weeks, and I had never bothered to finish reading Necropotence, or even give it a thought. It has never occurred to me to Necro for seven – let alone ten! – cards.
It may not surprise you to know that Jeff has gone on to teach at Michigan State University, where he began working on his PhD in Math at 21. He is a bright fellow, and both he and my brother Michael could have been incredible mages if they had only paid less attention to school and girls.
As you can imagine, I lost that game to a series of Drain Lifes, including one powered by a number of Basal Thrulls. However, it taught me much. First, never underestimate an opponent armed with apparently weaker cards. More importantly, I decided from then on to read every card many times and seriously contemplate them all.
2. Read, know, and consider every card. Every card has a purpose. Also, there are few powers as great as The Skull.
Less than a year later, it is 1996, and I am at Pro Tour: Dallas. It is my first Pro Tour and I am competing in the Junior Division, though in those days Juniors and Seniors played in a combined PTQ, so I should have just played as an adult.
The stories I have from Dallas are innumerable, and I will save most for another day, but it was truly one of the high points of my life (and I have been pretty high).
I had brought a Browse deck edt and I had been working on. The night before the tournament, Andrew Wills and I were doing some last minute testing. He was running a control deck with “more-sies” (i.e. counters). He gave me the Red deck that Paul Sligh had qualified with.
Then a funny thing happened. I won every game. For fun, we decided to pit the “Sligh” deck (Jay Schneider’s Geeba deck) versus the rest of our gauntlet. It was awesome! We tweaked it and decided to audible.
That is how I ended up playing Goblin Balloon Brigade, Orcish Librarian, Orcish Artillery, Death Spark, and Pillage in a field of all Balance and Necro. This was to be Sligh’s first major tournament performance, before it was RDW, Deadguy Red, or even “not a joke.”
I still remember the mad dash to build two copies from dealers. Let’s just say in those days, Orcs were not commonly carried by most dealers. Poor edt… he said he was sure our deck was great and his sucked, which is correct, but he wanted to play his deck.
As I said, the Pro Tour and weekend was filled with adventures, but long story short, Wills and I both started 4-0. People had no clue what we were up to. They weren’t using their Plows on Librarians, but rather saving them for our “good creatures.”
I went on to finish Swiss undefeated, but Wills faced a number of terrible Maro decks that gave him a hard time. The Juniors was all Necro and Balance, so I dodged.
After defeating my quarterfinal opponent’s G/W “untargetable” deck, I was paired with George Baxter’s protÃ©gÃ©, Jeremy Baca. Baca ran “White Trash,” a White resource denial deck that forwent the obvious Mystical Tutor and Arcane Denial for more consistent mana and a strong Outpost game.
All in all, Baca’s deck was not a terrible matchup, despite Plows, Wraths, Serrated Arrows, etc. He had no turbo Balance action, so it was a fair fight.
It was a gruelling match in which I had the “Strip Mine draw” (Strip was restricted and Paris was not the mulligan. Draw Strip as your only land and you are kold). I still almost won that game by holding off his two Mishra’s Factories with my Gorilla Shaman. Wait, you say…
That is not legal! Oh, but I did not say I activated my Gorilla Shaman.
I just windmilled him into play ON TOP of the Mishra’s. Then I turned to the table judge, Henry Stern.
Baca is more than a little shaken at this point.
In one of the crueller jokes life has ever played, I still lost that game, despite not getting attacked for five or six turns. Ah, Balance.
However, this is not the loss I learned the most from, this match. In the final game, I had the perfect draw. I had turn 1 Black Vise. He played turn 1 Ivory Tower. I followed with Ironclaw Orcs. He had a Plow. I Pillaged his Outpost. He played the Land Tax he just ripped.
I threw everything at his dome and bashed with men. Victory was in sight. He had lots of artifacts in play, but only one card in hand. There was no one card that could stop him from dying next turn, as he was facing Mishra’s, men on board, and burn in hand. Dead to rights…
He drew his card…
… And the whole building erupted with screams of what sounded like a riot jumping off.
Keep in mind, we were playing in a supposedly soundproof room. Literally hundreds of people were yelling at the top of their lungs.
There was a window from the room we were playing in that overlooked the whole PT. Clearly everyone watching the monitors was in an uproar.
I looked up. It was then that I realized that Jeremy and I were the game currently being broadcast and they had just shown his draw to the camera.
I knew it was over.
Somehow my Black Vise was no match for his Ivory Tower, Land Tax, Zuran Orb, Icy Manipulator, and Marble Diamonds.
I’d had the perfect draw and lost to someone who raw-dogged all four of his restricted cards (I see why you don’t need Mystical Tutor).
3. The best deck doesn’t always win, even when operated skilfully. People do degenerate things with powerful cards. You don’t need to play with broken cards, but if you choose not to, you have nothing to say when someone else does.
As a side note: He was holding the Zuran Orb so as to protect it from a possible Pillage or Gorilla Shaman. While he topdecked the Balance, it was a brilliant play to sandbag the Zuran Orb, giving him the best possible chance of pulling off this play.
Early the next year, 1997, I played in my first adult Pro Tour, Paris. Now most of my adventures in Paris must wait for another day, including the Pro Tour itself.
After all, I was an innocent 16-year-old lad being exposed to the dark underbelly of the Paris nightlife. I must be sure to not incriminate Brian Hacker, Truc Bui, and John Yoo of Team D*ckhead, with regards to pornography, underage women, “not straight” discothÃ¨ques, and contributing to the delinquency of a minor (me).
Heaven forbid word got out about scandalous behavior and one of us get arrested and go to prison or something.
No, this story is actually more about the fourth D*ckhead, Jason Zila, for whom I was a proxy all weekend. Since he made Top 8 of the Pro Tour, and because we are similar in the dark, Hacker and company replaced him with me for the weekend.
However, this story takes place after the Top 8 is over. It turns out I didn’t bring my passport. This means I am a broke 16-year-old card player in Paris with no papers. Sounds like a Hollywood script.
I flew in with edt but his only words of advice were “Have fun in France. I’m going back to America.” Then he flies home without me.
It turns out it will take a week for me to get a passport, so I hang out with the incredible Brian Weissman and Eric Tam.
We grab dinner and decide we’ll see the sights the next day. After dinner, we head to a hotel room. Exactly whose hotel room is still unclear to me. Eric Tam decides to go be Canadian somewhere. Brian and I are playing Type I, talking about Jason Gordon’s U/W Mir-Vis Floodgate control deck, which obviously Brian loves.
Then, out of nowhere, Jason Zila wanders in, eyes closed, bumping into things, dropping his deck everywhere. He crashes on the bed by the door, and Brian picks up Zila’s B/U/R 187 Mir-Vis deck.
Brian hands me the deck and wants me to pilot it versus him with Gordon U/W. As it turns out, this is a fairly bad matchup for Zila’s deck. Stupor + Incinerate + Nekrataal versus Inspiration + Mangara’s Blessing + Floodgate. Needless to say, I lost.
All of a sudden Jon Finkel stumbles in, half asleep. He grunts and drops his Magical paraphernalia. He climbs into bed with Zila. Zila rolls over and puts Finkel’s arm into his (sleeping, mind you).
Finkel wraps his arms around Zila’s supermodel thin frame, like a teddy bear.
4. Jason Zila and Jon Finkel bodies fit together like Legos.
What did you think I learned? Yes, Brian and I acknowledge this is the funniest thing we have ever seen, ask Weissman. They are utterly adorable when they cuddle.
It’s 1998, another year later. I find myself in New York. It’s the Te-Te-St Pro Tour. My opponent? The one and only Mike Long. I was playing a R/W deck that had begun as a failed U/R deck, meaning it was slower than would be desirable. Long was playing a relatively janky U/G tempo deck with a lot of high technology that myself and many others were not up…
Mike won the first game and tried to dictate the pace of the second. He talked his talk, perched until judges made him get down, and did everything he could to drag out the match.
That all changed when I won the second. Suddenly, we were playing the third at a breakneck pace. Mike and I are friends, as we were at that time, but what do you do in the following situation?
The board is cluttered. I am at two and Mike is attacking with Elven Warhounds every turn. I have to block, meaning I’ll never draw another card. I can still profitably attack, but the better play is definitely just play 100% defensive and go for the draw.
After guilt-tripping, manipulation, and an incredible Jedi Mind Trick, Long convinces me to attack with something. This is the opportunity he has been looking for. He plays Tidal Surge and Alpha Strikes for the win.
5. Don’t let your opponent dictate the pace of the game, and don’t decide things like whether to play for a draw based on opponent’s guilt trips.
A note here. I hold nothing against Mike for this. He did not break any rule and simply wanted it more than I did. He also pulled off an excellent play that required my sub-optimal play, which he cannot be faulted for helping with. I have convinced plenty of people to concede when I had no victory condition. I can hardly hold it against Mike for doing what he could to turn a draw into a win for him. Besides, if I do what my opponent tells me to, I deserve to lose.
The year is 1999. The format is Saga-Legacy, with Academy, Tinker, and Grim Monolith, but no Time Spiral, Windfall, or Memory Jar.
While far and away the most popular strategy was Academy + Tinker + Grim Monolith + Wildfire, I ran a U/G combo deck that is one of the crowning achievements of my career. Despite showing it to MCU, Deadguy, and Finkel, only edt took it seriously and played it.
- 4 Priest of Titania
- 4 Cloud of Faeries
- 1 Yavimaya Granger
- 4 Raven Familiar
- 4 Deranged Hermit
- 4 Elvish Herder
- 2 Barrin, Master Wizard
It has been over seven years, so please forgive if this list is off a little. The concept is to abuse Gaea’s Cradle with the untap mechanic. You win either by Stroking them out or attacking with an arbitrarily large number of Squirrels.
You can “go off” with Barrin + Faeries + Cradle + Hermit, but often just making eight Squirrels on turn 4 is sufficient. Suffice to say, the deck was insane enough to get Gaea’s Cradle banned, despite only Eric and I playing it. They knew Academy had to be banned and feared Snap Cradle would run rampant, not that the secret was out.
The story of how I did not win that Pro Tour is a tragic one, ending with my deck getting stolen just before the second to last round of Swiss.
I ran around in a Frantic Search for cards. With the help of some kind dealers, I rebuilt it in record time, returning to my table with seconds to spare before receiving a game loss.
However, I was shook and more than a little out of it. I played Terry Tsang (who played exceptionally), losing to the same Tinker–Wildfire deck I had defeated five times already (they scoop to my sideboard, which is arguably one of the best sideboards ever assembled).
This is an extremely difficult deck to pilot, and I did not play proficiently, that is for sure. Winning next round to finish Top 16 was little consolation. I had been given the chance to be the only one at a Pro Tour with the best strategy, and I didn’t capitalize.
6. Guard your deck with your life. Don’t let outside circumstances take you out of the zone.
The following year, 2000, I was in Malaysia, competing in the Invitational. Again, I have stories that would fill more than a couple of articles. Let’s just say, Malaysia is not where you want to be with an expired passport.
In any event, I was undefeated going into Identical Sealed (which admittedly may have been the first event… I don’t remember). The twist was that there were tons of made-up cards, but the common theme was that all of the cards were terrible. I’m talking wretched. It was well understood that Dracoplasm defined the format.
My opponent, once again, was Mike Long himself, who had won the previous year’s Invitational. As most of the cards involved were “not real,” I’ll spare you most of the details.
In the deciding game, I had a commanding lead and Mike had obviously been mana flooded all game. I had eight or nine creatures in play to his four, and he was dead easily, next turn.
Mike Long, Jedi Master that he is, had me completely convinced that he was doomed. He played the land he had just drawn without even mixing it into his hand. Then he Alpha Struck with his team of four small men.
Yes, I know, I know… this is Mike Long, you are saying. Obviously he is up to something. Seriously though, unless you’ve played him when he “turns it on,” it is hard to appreciate this man’s mental game.
Sure, you might think he wanted me to think he was just doing a last ditch attack for the hell of it, but he would see that I see this. Of course I see that he sees that I see this, but he surely sees that I sees that he sees that I see.
Seeing as I was on nine life and his creatures had a combined power of 7, plus there was no burn in the format, I felt fairly secure double blocking everything.
Did I mention this is Mike Long? He used to removal spells on the two creatures blocking his six casting cost War Mammoth. Then he played Surge of Strength on it. Yeah, go back and read that one.
Since all the cards were over-costed, this guy cost six for a 3/3 trampler. Surge of Strength and two removal spells meant I took nine points of Trample damage.
I was in shock. How did I lose this game? My mind was blank. Never in my life has someone worked me like that. I don’t even know how he did that to me. It is absurd how hard it is for me to lose that game.
7. My metaclorine count is 13 higher than most, but there is always someone the Force is stronger in. No matter how much it looks like you’ve won, try to find your opponent’s path to victory and prevent it.
Later that weekend, in the Standard portion, it all came down to Jon Finkel (with Bargain), Chris Pikula (with Rebels + Masticore + Cradle), and myself (with a terrible mono-Green deck that Mike Long had given me).
If I win either of my matches against them, I’m in the finals. Otherwise, it is the two of them.
Not surprisingly, Finkel Soul Feasted me five times on turn 4 or something. We pretended like I had won to ruin Pikula’s dreams, but after he started running around screaming “No!” (If I beat Jon, Pikula would be out of contention), we told him the truth.
Pikula and I, sadly, ended on the first turn. I had the double Cradle draw, but he played on turn 1 with his mono-White deck (old Legend rule).
Pikula goes on to his destiny as Meddling Mage, so I guess it’s a happy ending. So what did I learn?
8. The fix is in. Wizards of the Coast has rigged it so Pikula can shine (just kidding! I love you Paluka!).
Actually, the key is to know where you get your decks from. Long is an incredible deck builder, but that was a horrible choice for that format and certainly that metagame.
However it is my fault for running with Long’s backup deck (and not preparing for that format… I was too busy playing Type I).
The following year, 2001, I was competing in Pro Tour: New Orleans. The format was Extended and Aluren was my weapon of choice.
I was doing reasonably well and found myself opposite the delectable Brian Kibler. Kibler was running the innovative strategy of Donate + Illusions of Grandeur, though in those days, people ran Intuition / Accumulated Knowledge rather than Necropotence / Demonic Consultation.
In the deciding game, Kibler had transformed into Draw-Go with Morphling kill. He had powered himself up with two Sapphire Medallions.
Meanwhile I was serving Wirewood Savage, Raven Familiar beatdown. At this point I had Kibler to seven, and it was conceivable the troops would go all the way.
Kibler tapped five Islands and summoned Morphling. Josh Bennett, the helpful soul that he is, takes a break from reporting on our feature match to interrupt us and inform Kibler that he still has UU, as his Morphling only costs 1UU. No, this wasn’t at the end of the turn. Kibler hadn’t even passed priority.
As you can imagine, I was more than a little nonplussed by this. I tried to stop him, but Josh can speak quickly when so inclined. Now, I know Josh meant no harm and was just caught up in our exciting match. However, I obviously had to call the head judge, Mike Guptil, the solomon of judges.
After hearing what we had to say, Guptil had the following conversation with Kibler:
And with that, Kibler agreed to burn for two. A finer gentleman cannot be found. A less honorable man may have shaded the truth any number of ways. Kibler went on to win and deserved to, the class act that he is, playing much more carefully from then on.
9. Control your environment. If a unique situation arises, talk to the head judge. Brian Kibler and Mike Guptil are good people. Watch out for that Josh Bennett (or his ghost)! Seriously though, if spectators or even a judge is interfering, do something about it immediately.
The following year, 2002, I was in Milwaukee, ripping up a Standard Grand Prix. I employed a U/G Squirrel Nest / Opposition deck that incorporated a lot of counters, card drawing, and Madness.
I was plowing through everyone, not on the strength of my deck, which was only decent. Rather, I was playing some of the best Magic of my life.
Finally, it came down to edt and myself. Truly, it was a storybook tale. I have been playing with edt since he was playing Animate Dead on his Deep Spawns.
He is currently my oldest friend, not in years old, but rather the person I had been friends with the longest. Our friendship extends so far beyond Magic. He truly has been a blessing, and he’s one of my favorite people.
The thing is, he had never had a high finish in a major tournament until that day. Despite being one of the all-time great writers and theoreticians of Magic, edt, much like Michael Flores, was not making Top 8 of anything outside a PTQ. I would say it was a safe bet that I was the favorite. The matchup favored me. Also, I have a record better than “Thriller” versus edt, lifetime. I just happen to have his number.
Until that day.
That day, there was no stopping Eric. I played my ass off, but edt did everything right. I tried to bluff, I tried mind control, I did whatever I could. His resolve was unbreakable.
Aside from his complete shielding from my mental assault, he was cool, calm, and knew his deck much the way he knows how to please a woman.
10. Winning isn’t everything. Friends / teammates getting a moment under the sun can be incredibly rewarding. Also, some days, there is no stopping some people. As self-deprecating as edt is, his potential shown that day was amazing.
They say you learn more from losses than your victories. I say, if you learned from a loss, it is a victory. If you take nothing else away from this, remember to always reflect on what there is to learn from every loss.
It only needs to be a moment, but it can revolutionize the way you think about the game.