The StarCityGames.com Interview: Frank Kusumoto, founder of the Magic Dojo!

Thanksgiving was yesterday… and what are we thankful for here at StarCityGames.com? We’re thankful that great men like Frank Kusumoto founded The Dojo and made it possible for us to continue in the tradition of providing Magic strategy, holding debates on Magic issues, and expanding the community, that’s what! And to remind us of our roots, StarCityGames.com founder Pete Hoefling interviews The Dojo founder Frank Kusumoto… and makes an exciting announcement afterwards!

Long before there was a Starcitygames.com, Sideboard.com or MagictheGathering.com, there was another gathering place for fans of Magic: Every day, players from around the world would come together to”study and grow strong” as part of the Magic the Gathering community.

That place was designed and constructed by the”Sensei” – also known as Frank Kusumoto – and it was appropriately titled”The Magic Dojo.” To this day, many people consider The Dojo to be the greatest Magic the Gathering website of all time (Including me – The Ferrett).

STARCITYGAMES.COM: First of all, I want to thank you for agreeing to this interview. If the rest of the community is anything like me, they’re really looking forward to hearing from you.

FRANK KUSUMOTO: Thank you, Mr. Hoefling; you do me much honor. I’m pleasantly surprised that anyone would be interested in doing an interview.

STARCITYGAMES.COM: For those in the community who may not familiar with the Dojo’s history, can you explain how the Dojo came to be and what inspired you to create it?

FRANK KUSUMOTO: At the time (late ’95), I was working for the FBI and the Department of Defense on website development. It wasn’t that long ago, but webpage design and website organization in the government then was just abysmal. They’d have thousands of reports, and all the reports would just be listed on one big/long page that would take forever to load, and they’d stick these large graphics at the top that didn’t help with the navigation at all and took forever to load. I mean, these were 14k connections, maybe 28k if you were lucky. So I spent a couple years working with these organizations designing pages and teaching people how to categorize reports, basically creating a file system and teaching them some simple HTML. It helped improve efficiency for the analysts, who actually had to find and read these reports by quite a bit. Then later, some search engines got added and they finally had a reasonable system to work with.

At the same time, I started playing Magic – very non-competitively – and I started checking out some of the early Magic sites on the web. Almost all of them were fan/personal pages that everyone at college was doing those days…. Not a lot of useful information. The other place to get a lot of Magic info was USENET. I would spend a lot of time searching the net, reading USENET, and I’d copy or print out useful articles. I made a few simple HTML pages with info I’d gathered, but it was just on my computer. Then I read an article by Paul Pantera on”The Deck” (Brian Weissman’s deck), and a light bulb went off in my head. It made me realize what an interesting and subtle game Magic was, and I became a student of the game.

The next epiphany was Rob Hahn’s”Schools of Magic.” Here was this amazing article about several different decks, how they were played, what the strategy was behind them… And the way Rob structured it, it was an ongoing evolving article, with input from other people e-mailing him, from USENET posts, playing experience at Neutral Ground. For Rob, the problem finally became that it was set up as a static”article,” but the relevant info was constantly being amended, expanded and revised. He came up with version 1.0, 2.1, 5.3, etc., but it was too much to keep up with, so he eventually ended it.

I decided the easiest way to solve the problem was to structure Rob’s”Schools of Magic” as a series of articles that were”Histories.” Every time the environment changed, just write a new article and explain how the deck ideas and concepts adapted. In essence, Brian Weissman had been doing something close to that with his”Deck” anyway. There were a few other decks I had become interested in at that time also, so I set about doing histories of”The Deck,” Jay Schneider’s”Sligh” deck (It should have been called Schneider), the”Necro” deck and the”Prison” (by Alan Cade). As part of the histories, I envisioned pulling tourney reports off USENET for each of the deck types as an addendum for each section of the histories, to give some examples of the praxis for each deck type.

At that time I set up a website, posted the articles I’d written with the few tourney reports I’d already archived, and sent quite a few e-mails to Rob Hahn talking about the project with him. He gave me a lot of good ideas on how the whole thing should flow. However, Rob was still in law school at the time, and didn’t have time to devote to a web project. After those initial brainstorming sessions, it was up to me to set up the website and run it.

STARCITYGAMES.COM: What was your editorial strategy for the Dojo and how did it evolve over the years?

FRANK KUSUMOTO: At the beginning the editorial strategy was driven by the website strategy. All the Dojo set out to be at that time was a comprehensive repository of the good articles from USENET, and a link page that had the other good websites of the time identified (Beyond Dominia, The Vault, Land of Destinoguardian, Planeswalker League, Library of Dominia, D’Angelo’s Rulings, MoxPerl, Michael Fuell’s Rankings Sorter). At first, there wasn’t any original material on the Dojo besides what I had written. Then, someone decided he wanted to send an article straight to me, to be posted. I said”okay,” the floodgates were opened…

And then a strange thing happened. People starting sending in”opinion” articles.

At first, I really didn’t know what to do with these and then the editorial strategy started evolving… Be an advocate for fair play and for the average tournament player.

STARCITYGAMES.COM: From Mike Flores and EDT. to Jamie Wakefield and Anthony Alongi, many of the most recognizable names in Magic got their start writing for the Dojo. While these were all great writers, did you have a personal favorite? Who was it and what about them made them so enjoyable to read?

FRANK KUSUMOTO: Well, that’s really a can of worms, to name a favorite. I’d prefer not to say. But I always liked Andrea Kunstt, Cathy Nicoloff, Eric Taylor, Mike Flores (who looks good in a skirt, I assure you), Bill Jackson, THE QUARD! (a.k.a. Vinnie Navarino), Andrew Wills, Oscar Tan, Brian Weissman and the list could just go on.

I tended to like people’s writing for one of two reasons: Either they were very good at the analytical aspect, or they had strong and well-reasoned opinions (they were good advocates). I also tend to like material that’s funny and a little bit mischievous.

STARCITYGAMES.COM: On a related note, can you think of any specific articles that you’d designate as a”must read” for any Magic player?

FRANK KUSUMOTO: I’d have to break that up into three different categories: Reports, Strategy and Humor.

My favorite tournament report of all time was Brian Kibler“Tie Dyed” report. I seem to recall it being from a P.T.Q. in Canada. After that, there were several first rate reports from Brian Hacker. He and Truc Bui coined more Magic lingo than anyone besides Finkel and Ooompah. As far as”must read,” I think that any of the reports by the highly ranked/regarded players of the time became”must read”…. But as far as posterity is concerned, for pure entertainment value, stick with Brian Kibler, Brian Hacker, Jamie Wakefield, Truc Bui, and about ten other guys I could mention. The”very” short report by Nate Clark (I think it was his New York PTQ winner’s report) gets an honorable mention.

For strategy articles I still recommend Rob Hahn’s”School’s of Magic.” For me, they were the basis of an ongoing discussion of how the cards worked, and how to work them. I’ll toot my own horn here and say that my second favorites are the articles I cobbled together on”The Deck” (thanks to Brian Weissman) and Sligh/Red Burn (thanks to Arthur Kimes, Jay Schneider,”The Crew” and Dave Price). There were also several good articles done by Omeed Dariani, Jamie Wakefield, Eric Lauer, Seth Burn, David Low and many others I’m forgetting to mention. Eric Taylor was the”Dojo Writer of the Year” for ’98 and ’99 based on his ability to combine superb insight with a phenomenal output.

For humor articles, I prize one above all others, but that’s just my sense of humor. It’s an article called”Redemption Report”. It’s still archived. Second best for humor, and real close to first place, is a bogus tourney report sent in by John Shuler. I recall it was a P.T.Q. report from the Washington, D.C. area. Shuler totally made up the whole report, from a ridiculous deck to round-by-round descriptions, and sent it in as a PTQ winner report! For about five hours, it was posted as a real tournament report, but Jamie (Wakefield) and Eric (Taylor) convinced me it was bogus, so it was re-classified as humor.

There were also regular humor contributors like Sean Roney, Dave Mateson (who also did quite a few good strategy articles), Toby Wachter (a great Guy!), and many more. The humor section was kept edgy because”Good” players like Eric Taylor, Dan Gray, Alex Shvartsman, Adam Maysonet, Ben Farkas, and Manuel Bevand would do these little humor pieces – and sometimes it was hard to tell if they were being real or ironic/funny.

STARCITYGAMES.COM: Although it’s quite a common feature nowadays, many players believed that the Dojo’s”Decks to Beat” discouraged creativity within the game. The same debate rages to this day. How did you respond to these critics and has your opinion changed at all in the years since?

FRANK KUSUMOTO: I don’t think that the”Decks to Beat” discouraged creativity if you’re talking about a competitive endeavor. The Dojo was set up to follow tournament Magic – and when you’re presented with a certain card set, the parameters of what’s a good/bad deck are first defined by that card set. After that, there’s a certain rock/paper/scissors aspect that translates into the metagame. In a certain sense, if the card set is well designed, there will be sleeper cards that become very important in metagame terms and players will have to experiment to find them. A lot of the specific creativity becomes deciding what style of deck you like to play, tweaking it, and good sideboarding.

When I was running the Dojo, I didn’t really respond to the critics unless they were top tier players. I mean, if some scrub was pissed off that his Thallid deck wasn’t competitive, too bad – that’s not what PTQ Magic is about. Go back to your card shop and beat down ten year olds, but don’t expect to beat down Mario Robaina when he’s got the ultra-tech Necro humming along.

As far as the top tier (and almost top tier) players, I did have some talks with Jon Finkel, Jeff Donais, Brian Hacker, David Price, Chris Pikula, John Chinnock, Tommy Hovi, Worth Wollpert, Tom Guevin, Brian Weissman, Alexander Blumke, Justin Gary,”Hammer” Regnier , Alan Comer, etc… I think the only person that had strong objections was Pikula, but Chris always liked to complain. Most of the other players liked the”Decks to Beat” because they helped them to prepare. Knowing the”Decks to Beat” allowed them to concentrate on”playing” strategies such as playtesting each deck against the others, sideboarding and analyzing the key aspects of each match-up instead of worrying about meeting up with three Kobold decks in the first four rounds. Every once in a while a deck would become so dominant in the metagame that teams would”meta” the metagame, and play a deck that took out that deck with some super-secret tech. It’s all just boxes within boxes within boxes, but it can be a lot of fun trying to peel those types of onions (to mix some metaphors).

STARCITYGAMES.COM: There’s been some recent controversy regarding the publishing of spoiler information. What was your stance on publishing spoiler information? And has your opinion changed since then?

FRANK KUSUMOTO: Oh, there was controversy back then too. I once received an almost complete spoiler list for the Weatherlight set from someone on IRC. I think it was a Chinese tournament organizer who was sharing it, but I’m not sure. Anyway, this person was sending around a file that had over 80% of the cards done (Weatherlight was a small set), and this was about two hours before the pre-release tourney was scheduled to kick off at Neutral Ground. I posted it. There was plenty of people on IRC that I knew were in NYC, downloading that list and intending to use it for a competitive advantage. I figured”Why shouldn’t everyone else also have access to that information?”

A few days later, I received an e-mail from Andrew Finch, asking me where I’d gotten the list from. I really didn’t know, except that it was a person on IRC and that’s where it ended. I suppose in a perfect world nobody would know anything about the cards until they opened their first pack, but it’s not a perfect world.

STARCITYGAMES.COM: So you’re saying that you believe in the posting of spoilers, both then and now?

FRANK KUSUMOTO: Sure. I don’t think it’s a matter of believing in it or not. If a list exists, then some people are going to exploit that knowledge. The only way to level the playing field at prerelease tournaments is to let as many people as possible see it. If you don’t want to know, don’t read it. If someone got an entire spoiler list for a card set three months before it was due out, I’d wonder about publishing that – but I never was in that position. Sometimes we got a few cards that were leaked out early, but I think some people at Wizards leaked card info at times for various different reasons.

STARCITYGAMES.COM: Why did the Dojo close its doors and where do you believe that Psylum went wrong?

FRANK KUSUMOTO: The Dojo closed because the business model was unsustainable in the eyes of the people that were running it (ultimately, USA Networks). I don’t know that Psylum did anything wrong. I think it was just a victim of the business environment.

STARCITYGAMES.COM: At what point did you completely end your involvement with the Dojo? What have you been doing since then?

FRANK KUSUMOTO: I phased out completely at the beginning of 2000. Of course, Dave Price took over as editor in Dec ’99, so my involvement after that was basically just helping out the crew coming in (Price, Mike Flores, Al Tran, Rob Hahn, Charles Hwa, etc…). Since then I’ve been playing a lot of golf, traveling, managing my meager investments, gardening, playing chess, playing bridge and dabbling in oenology (wine making).

STARCITYGAMES.COM: Do you still play Magic? If so, what do you think about the current state of the game?

FRANK KUSUMOTO: I don’t really play anymore. I can’t keep up with the card sets anymore. Occasionally I’ll break out one of my Type I decks and play with some”old-timers,” or I’ll take out my power card collection and play draft… Just fun things. I’ll buy a couple of packs of the new sets that come out just to check out the new cards, talk with people down at the local card shop, check out new decks and such.

I really think the new card sets are great, and the game is doing great. It took about five years for Wizards to figure it out, but it seems to me that they are doing a much better job of weeding out the bad cards that Rosewater used to design (just kidding, Mark!).

Oh, and by the way, if”The Jeff” reads this – I’m still waiting for that card you promised me!

STARCITYGAMES.COM: One of the things that I always enjoyed about the Dojo was that it seemed to be a genuine pipeline directly into the minds of the professional Magic community. It used to be that high-level/pro players would write based on their desire to share information and help other players improve their game. Nowadays, there’s so much money on the line that many pros either don’t say anything, discuss information only after it’s become outdated – or even spread misinformation intentionally in an attempt to skew the metagame in their favor. Do you think that the Dojo could exist within today’s environment? If not, how might it have evolved?

FRANK KUSUMOTO: To some extent, all of those things existed before. Players didn’t want to share”tech,” some teams spread misinformation, etc. It’s a matter of degree. In some ways, I think something like the Dojo could only exist because at its interactive best, the Dojo was just a highly moderated message board. Of course, that wasn’t my idea of what it would be in the beginning, and the task of moderating hundreds of posts each day is quite enormous for one person. Still, speaking to the community aspect of it all, I think that’s what people liked most about the Dojo, that you could click on a post and usually find something worth reading because it was screened and categorized by one person.

STARCITYGAMES.COM: Speaking of today’s environment, some websites now offer”Premium” services in which players are charged a fee to read certain articles. How do you feel about these”Premium” services and did you ever consider offering a”Premium” service at the Dojo?

FRANK KUSUMOTO: I recall that Psylum did consider adding”Premium” services. Personally, I don’t think a Magic website can survive on that model. I think card sales work better, but I don’t see anything wrong with offering”Premium” services. Market forces will work it out. Remember, if someone can figure out how to offer the same type of content for free, then it will be. Knowledge does like to be free.

STARCITYGAMES.COM: What do you think of today’s Magic websites? Are any of us doing it”right”?

FRANK KUSUMOTO: Oh definitely. Although I don’t see any one website out there that’s everything the Dojo was, I think if you take a handful of websites such as StarCityGames.com, the Sideboard, Brainburst and MTGNews… They are collectively bigger than the Dojo. Eventually, the community had to get fragmented again, but I’m glad the Dojo was around long enough that people had a good model to draw from, expand on, and make their own websites. Plus, it’s probably better to have competing websites because that encourages competition and hopefully improvement amongst each of them.

STARCITYGAMES.COM: What writers, if any, do you read nowadays? Why?

FRANK KUSUMOTO: Sometimes I’ll read articles by guys I used to hang out with, like Gary Wise or Mike Flores, but that’s mainly just nostalgia. I read over 20,000 articles and posts on the Dojo, so I kind of got burned out on that.

STARCITYGAMES.COM: What advice would you have for today’s aspiring Magic writers?

FRANK KUSUMOTO: Find what you’re good at and practice writing until you can’t type anymore. Also, try to find a good editor that will help you with your writing. (Like me – The Ferrett)

STARCITYGAMES.COM: Hindsight is 20/20. If you had the chance to do it all over again, what, if anything, would you have done differently with the Magic Dojo?

FRANK KUSUMOTO: I would have slowed it’s expansion after Psylum took over. Besides that, not much.

STARCITYGAMES.COM: Because the community would kill me if I didn’t ask: Have you ever considered relaunching the Dojo?

FRANK KUSUMOTO: Yes. Cathy Nicoloff tried to get me to do another website, and ended up doing her own in Meridian Magic (which I thought was quite good), but she’s since given it up. It’s not the same environment as it was seven years ago. The game has changed quite a bit as has the world. At the Dojo, I could often get tournament reports from at least half of the top ten at any Pro Tour, and they would send them in for free. PTQ reports came in like mana from heaven, and people would write for other reasons than monetary.

Sadly, when I left the Dojo, that ethos was beginning to pass. However, I believe it to just be a natural evolution of the game, the metagame, the politics and economics.

STARCITYGAMES.COM: Once again, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. Is there anything else you’d like to say to the Magic community?

FRANK KUSUMOTO: Study and grow strong, and support the websites that help you do that.

Breaking News! The Magic Dojo… Back Online?!?!

Soon you will be able to”study and grow strong” once again… right here at StarCityGames.com! As a result of a partnership with Frank Kusumoto, StarCityGames.com will soon be restoring and hosting the ENTIRE Dojo archive on our servers… just as you remember it! Take a walk down memory lane with Frank Kusumoto and the Magic Dojo… coming soon to StarCityGames.com!