The Origins of Zvi

How exactly does one go from geeky chess club kid to Pro Tour champion and now employee of Wizards of the Coast R&D? Was he bitten by a radioactive mosquito? Or perhaps struck by a bolt of lightning? Today Zvi shares the story of his Magical origins including providing readers with some of his earliest deck designs.

On September 1, I start my work as the latest intern at Wizards of the Coast. I can’t stop smiling every time I think about it, but it does entail certain sacrifices. I’ll have to move again, from New York to Seattle. Since February of 2004, I’ve gone from my native New York to Denver, then from Denver to Boston, then from Boston back to New York. I’m getting a lot better at this whole moving enterprise, but we all know moving is not fun. It means working a day job again, which can be a downer no matter how much you love what you do. Sure, I’m working by eight in the morning almost every day, but it’s great to work at home and have the option to take off any time that you decide that you need to take a break and get your head back into the game. You can also do it when you have an itching to go see Batman Begins. It also means I’ll be leaving StarCityGames.com.

I’ve written for a lot of sites, and I left each for different reasons. This will be the first time that I wish I could have stayed. I love the people I’m working with and for here, I love the freedom I have to write what I want to write. I can write about new decks, I can do pure theory, I can talk about card design. I can talk about the Hall of Fame, about Vintage, about future Pro Tour formats. With that kind of flexibility, I’d never run out of good topics. I love magicthegathering.com, and Scott Johns is an amazing editor, but as much as I like the idea of my new column I will definitely miss the freedom I have here.

None of that means that I have the slightest doubt about my decision. Ever since I got onto the Pro Tour, I’ve known what I wanted: I wanted to work at Wizards of the Coast, developing the game I love. For years I spent as much time on Tour as I could debating the great issues of Magic design with those who did work there, first Mark Rosewater and then Randy Buehler. When that call finally came, I had nothing to think about. I simply could not walk away. If I turned down this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I’d never forgive myself. Even if I’m a horrible fit and we all decide that I shouldn’t stay on, and no matter how much I doubt that anything is possible, I’ll be better off having tried and failed than never having tried at all. If it ends that way, I can walk away knowing that I gave it my best shot and that it is time for me to move along. I’ll go get my PhD in Economics along side David Williams at Harvard if they let me in, elsewhere if they don’t, and what I learned in that six months will help me more than an extra few classes ever could have. If it ends the way I believe that it will, I’ll spend many years working with a wonderful group of people on the game I love in the situation where I love it the most: A world constantly in flux. This week’s cards are different from last week’s cards. Then a year later, we get to find out what we did right and what we did wrong. My job gets to be to solve a constantly shifting puzzle, making the game as many things as I can to as many different people as I can. I was born to do this.

Until then, I have two months during which I can write this column and I have no intention of ending it early. I want to get the most out of the time I have left, and tackle the things I’ve meant to do and haven’t had a chance. I could talk about my Regionals experience, and I still might, but I don’t feel that is an important chapter in the story or that it will teach anything important that most people reading this do not already know. Today I’m going to start that by telling the stories that I never told because they happened before I started writing. This is how Zvi Mowshowitz ended up as a Magic professional. Welcome to the prequels.

The Origin Story, Part 1: Finding the Game

Back when I was in High School at New York’s Stuyvesant High School, I saw some people playing with strange cards in the hallways and then a group playing with them in the student union room where I hung out when I had free time, reading books and playing chess. I was so exciting back then, I know. The leader of this group was a man by the name of Paul. He looked like a taller cross between Rob Dougherty and Johnny Depp, decked out in a black trenchcoat. For some reason, the alpha Magic player at our high school was no geek; he was very, very cool. He would fight it out for ante with the best of them, forking Demonic Attorney and then firing off a Jeweled Bird, and then turn around and win the game down a few cards. At any rate, there were four or five of them around the table, and they were clearly having a blast playing a game. I asked for a rule book. They laughed. I didn’t know why. I know now.

That didn’t stop them from giving me one, and I took it and read it over at the long since closed down Mama’s Pizza. I was one of the many who tried to learn the game from the rulebook, but it would be a while before I bought any cards. For the rest of the year, I would still use chess and 4X games like Master of Orion and Civilization as my games of choice. I like those games a lot, and still play Master of Orion on occasion while desperately hoping that Civilization IV doesn’t suck like Master of Orion III did. [Ditto. – Knut, who needs to install MOO on his new laptop.] Things changed when I went off to CTY, the Center for Bad Spellers. I was playing Risk and Diplomacy, but was having a far harder time than the previous year finding players because a lot of people were off playing this strange new card game. I started watching it, a series of mostly multiplayer games. The more those who didn’t have cards watched the games the more we wanted in, but there were no cards available.

Give 'er the old heave ho!

You couldn’t buy packs in our closed off world at all. It may have been hard to find them out in the open, but we had nothing at all. In the end, I struck a deal with a Red player. That was how few cards there were. Every player played with what he had and traded away the rest of his cards to build as big and as high quality a deck as he could. What I did was buy ten Red commons and ten Mountains for a few dollars. The big creature was a Stone Giant, and lest you think I was playing with twenty cards I was not. I would split the deck with opponents and we’d both play off the twenty! That was how hard it was to get cards. It was amazing the excitement in someone’s voice when they realized, “you have a deck!”

When I got home, I convinced my best friend Adam Hulse to start playing the game with me. Neither of us had that much money, and he had a lot less than I did. We knew that the game lent itself to escalation, with both players spending tons of money, so we agreed that we would limit ourselves. When we bought cards, we’d buy them together. We didn’t know anyone else who played, so trading wasn’t an issue. First we each had a starter and a few boosters. Two of my first three rares were Demonic Hordes and Jayemdae Tome, which got me off to a roaring start. He opened up a Control Magic, which frequently made my life miserable. It was Magic as Richard Garfield originally saw it. We didn’t use tournament rules because we didn’t have to. We didn’t even know they existed. We tried playing for ante once, but after I lost a Basalt Monolith, I realized that I preferred the game without it.

The decision to adopt tournament deck construction rules was reached by me when I went off for a week and played against some other people who used them and had collections that, like mine, were big enough to do degenerate things. I was using more than four of some cards, but instinctively I understood that trying to be truly degenerate when playing with a friend wouldn’t be any fun so I’d avoided opening that box. I built a deck with nothing but Taiga, Forest, Mountain, Sol Ring, Channel, Fireball and Disintegrate. Five minutes later, he agreed to restrict things to four of each card. Examples go a long way.

Eventually we reached a turning point, and it was clear that the collection I was looking to acquire was going to outstrip his ability to afford cards. It had been a good run for several months, but parity was not going to survive. We still played occasionally, and he was quite good as a player but he drifted away from the game. I haven’t heard from him since he left for Stony Brook, other than one day we randomly met up on the subway in New York. I wonder what happened to him. If this was a real origin story, I’d see an albino villain emerging in the shadows. Or maybe I’d be the villain.

I played at school every day for a while and had started to reach the final stages of assembling my playsets of Revised. We played a lot of emperor and multiplayer games in addition to matches. I wanted the power cards, but I didn’t have that kind of money. I’d already passed up my two chances to get a Black Lotus. The first one came before I knew what it was, and could have had it for almost nothing. The second time I was bought out of a bidding war so that someone else could buy it at a price even I knew not to believe. I traded because I had to, but I didn’t care for it that much. It was easy to build a collection, because when you opened a pack you would get cards worth more than the pack cost you even when you paid retail… plus tax. I made money for my collection by buying Dark boosters by the box and selling them to other players, which paid for me to keep two for myself. I tried the same trick with Fallen Empires, and it didn’t go as well. My collection would be lost or stolen several times along the way, in pieces and all at once. I wasn’t the best at keeping an eye on it. The turning point came when I discovered tournaments.

My first tournament was at Chameleon, a comic store out at the end of the 7 line in Queens. There’s something fitting about that name. It is perfect for a Magic store, the embodiment of a constantly changing game. They had two tournaments a week, a Type One on Saturday and a Revised-only one on Sunday. I’d never played Revised-only, since all our games at school were Type I even if the decks were almost all Type II level. None of my decks came close to being legal for the tournament, and I’d never built anything that would have made sense for the tournament. The good news was that there was no one around to netdeck from, so the idea of not being able to build our own decks hadn’t crossed our minds. The Dojo was years in the future. I had an essentially fully stocked Revised collection, and I needed a deck.

I have nothing witty to say here that makes any sense.

I decided that I would build my deck around Sedge Troll. It was a strong creature, and it survived Nevinyrral’s Disk. With Disk in the deck I wanted to make the rest of my deck support the Disk. I decided to complement my central theme with land destruction. If I killed their land and then blew up everything else, that would be strong. Stone Rain went into the deck, as did Fork for even more Stone Rain goodness or to combine with Fireball and Lightning Bolt which seemed like natural additions. Throw in some restricted cards, lands and Dark Rituals. That left me with a few slots, so I decided to go ahead and play a few Hypnotic Specters. I didn’t use four because they conflicted with the Disks. We were young and stupid back then. Instead I included Demonic Hordes. I’d loved Demonic Hordes ever since I’d opened one in my first starter, which speaks to the importance of splashy rares to drawing in new players. I figured that with that in my deck, I could defeat White players by slowly eating up all of their lands to stop their Circles!

Here are the parts of the deck I remember:

8 Mountain

8 Swamp

4 Badlands

4 Dark Ritual

2 Hypnotic Specter

1 Demonic Tutor

2 Terror

3 Fork

4 Fireball

4 Sedge Troll

2 Demonic Hordes

4 Nevinyrral’s Disk

4 Stone Rain

4 Lightning Bolt

1 Mind Twist

1 Sol Ring


2 Flashfires

2 Gloom

2 Terror

2 Royal Assassin

1 Disintegrate

That’s all I can remember. I filled the deck out somehow, but it has been lost in the mists of time. I showed up to a single elimination tournament with about forty players. I showed up without any lands in my deck, in case anyone is wondering. I didn’t exclude the “other” lands to avoid writing down the wrong ones. They weren’t there. As I said, young and stupid. Somehow I got away with it. Round after round my opponents would do nothing that threatened my strategies. No one had enough lands, so having four Stone Rain in my deck and often backing them up with Fork was huge. I faced a Green/White deck that I found out about mostly from the cards that a Specter ripped out of his hand. I played against a two hundred card deck that sideboarded in Circles of Protection, and I won after killing all his lands with Demonic Hordes. I faced a deck based around Psychic Venom and Mana Short, and almost lost. In the finals, I faced a deck very similar to mine running White so he could sideboard Circles. That allowed me to sideboard in Flashfires, which did more to decide the match than anything in his sideboard because my deck was naturally resistant to Circles and he couldn’t run Karma. In the deciding game, I drew the Demonic Tutor, got Mind Twist and put him at a card disadvantage he could never overcome.

With the money and a little extra, I went downstairs and bought an Ancestral Recall. That was a good day. I’d later sell it at a profit, which of course was a huge mistake. I tried to repeat my success again the next week with an improved version of the deck featuring four Hypnotic Specters and other good sense improvements, but I lost in the second round, killed by Serra Angel cast off of Mana Vault. I knew I’d have to come up with something better because my deck was showing itself to be underpowered. There wasn’t much true competition there, but it wasn’t going to be trivial to win. I trashed my first deck, kept the Ancestral Recall in its case and plotted my next creation.

The Mark II

4 Mana Vault

4 Basalt Monolith

4 Disintegrate

4 Fireball

4 Birds of Paradise

4 Lightning Bolt

4 Fork

1 Wheel of Fortune

3 Shivan Dragon

1 Regrowth

1 Black Vise

1 Ivory Tower

1 Channel

1 Sol Ring

4 Llanowar Elves

4 Taiga

8 Mountain

8 Forest

No one else there had anything like it. I don’t remember if that was actually Llanowar Elves or something else. It might have been Hurricane, or any number of things I don’t remember. The inspiration here was that Mana Vault bringing out a Serra Angel to beat me in week two. It seemed like one could get a lot of mana, and what was the best thing to do with that mana? Fireball, of course! X spell to the head, the best a man can get. This was a time when almost anything that was implemented in an interesting way had a chance. I ended up taking third place after winning the 3rd/4th place playoff, as the field had grown and they were now paying out to the Top 4. Once again I left with more money than I came in with, and I loved the idea that I could not only compete and win but be rewarded for it. That meant more cards! I played that deck a second time as well, but I knew I could find something better. I was winning because I could generate gigantic Fireballs, but I sensed how unreliable the deck really was. I knew I’d have to find something that flat out didn’t lose.

It was time to break the format, and for my fifth time around I did just that.

The Mark III: The Best Deck in Revised

(if you fixed the mana, cause I was still young and stupid if not quite as much)

4 Tundra

4 Tropical Island

4 Savannah

4 Island

3 Plains

1 Forest

4 Birds of Paradise

1 Sol Ring

4 Control Magic

4 Serra Angel

4 Juggernaut

3 Jayemdae Tome

2 Power Sink

4 Counterspell

4 Wrath of God

1 Balance

4 Swords to Plowshares

2 Unsummon

1 Braingeyser

1 Regrowth

1 Ivory Tower


1 Jayemdae Tome

2 Disrupting Scepter

1 Unsummon

3 Karma

2 Circle of Protection: Red

2 Circle of Protection: Black

3 Disenchant

1 Power Sink

The other two I couldn’t get to add to sixty, and this one I can’t quite get down to sixty. I remember a third Unsummon, a third Power Sink, a fourth Jayemdae Tome and additional copies of Balance (yes that was legal) at various points, but I know that I had full sets of Wrath, Serra, Juggernaut, Swords and Counterspell and that none of these cards were absent. I can only conclude that in addition to my memory pulling a trick or two I didn’t put anywhere near enough land in the deck, but the core concept was amazingly strong in that world. I would develop this deck for the next few months, shifting the sideboard to deal with my strongest opponents and adopting to the move from Revised-only to RV/FE/HL by adding Fellwar Stone and Maze of Ith, at which point I know I had three copies of Balance. I also started getting my parents to drive me down to a store in New Jersey to play additional tournaments, which were of a similar size and competition level. My success rate with this deck was about 50/50 to win any given tournament before I had to stop coming and/or they stopped running the tournaments.

The idea of the list is to play a control game while guarding yourself against the decks that seek to knock you out quickly. The biggest thing that made my deck different from other people’s lists was my willingness to play Unsummon. This bought me time against decks that tried to come out quickly, which generally involved Black creatures and often Unholy Strength on Black Knight or Hypnotic Specter. With extra solutions to quick assaults, I could get to Wrath of God and Control Magic. Once I did that, the game was mine. Was this the best build of the best deck? That is unlikely, and I still wonder how I ended up with Juggernaut instead of something like Mahamoti Djinn. It’s a moot point now. Either way, things were good. Anyone who tried to attack me had to face a completely unfair set of defenses. The biggest challenges were decks similar to mine, but no one was ever willing to engage me in a true arms race over extra cards. With the ability to use Regrowth and Braingeyser to deck opponents who concentrated on stopping my admittedly limited threats, the only real weakness of the list never became a major factor.

After a while, the tournaments died out. I’m not sure why. Perhaps people got bored of the format, or the stores didn’t market the products properly. I don’t know. Either way, by the release of Ice Age those tournaments were gone. I heard about thousand dollar events, but they required cards I didn’t own and with my history of keeping such a close eye on my cards *ahem*, it looked like I never would. It looked like my days of tournament play were over.

I wonder how that worked out.