Untold Legends – Pro Tour New Orleans 2003

Thursday, November 4th – Judging from his Magic writing portfolio, he would’ve had a career as a best-selling author of fiction if he hadn’t chosen to be a “marketing analyst” instead. Same thing, I guess. Osyp Lebedowicz tells you about PT New Orleans.

Long-time readers know him as Joseph James Black. “Joe” to his friends.

Ladies know him as “The Big O” and “Salsify.”

Three Pro Tour Top 8s with a win in Venice. Four GP Top 8s, also with a win. Expect to see him kissing babies and shaking hands when the Hall of Fame ballots come around next year.

Judging from his Magic writing portfolio, he would’ve had a career as a best-selling author of fiction if he hadn’t chosen to be a “marketing analyst” instead. Same thing, I guess. Thankfully most of the lawsuits have been dismissed.

He actually got poor, innocent Gabe Walls banned from ever doing Top 8 commentary again at US Nationals 2004. I vividly remember Chris Galvin storming backstage, looking like Ghost Rider, saying something like, “Get them off the f*cking microphone.

” Shockingly, Osyp somehow weaseled his way into the booth again in Columbus 2005, with Pierre Canali under the spotlights. It’s the
only time I can recall someone verbally having their balls ripped off for making terrible plays
on the way to winning the Pro Tour.

I think he was just jealous of Pierre’s ability to dance.

A couple of weeks ago, I, along with several other Magic players, received this message from Ted Knutson on Facebook:

One of my favorite things about Magic is the stories it generates. For some reason, traveling around the world with a bunch of friends andplaying the game, seems to spawn more epic and amusing adventures than almost any other vein of writing. Unfortunate, as Magic writing hasturned more commercial in recent years, this is one of those things that we old fogeys have begun lamenting as missing. Some of the fun andstories from yesteryear have disappeared, and most of the kids these days just don’t seem to tell them as well – probably because they haven’thad great examples in front of them.

I’d like to change that.

What I’d like to do is commission an article from each of you, reliving some of your favorite stories and tales from years past. They don’tactually have to be about you, but they can be – career retrospectives and highlights are fine. These can also be about tournaments, testing,friends, enemies, or just the times – they simply need to be loosely connected to Magic by the people or places you are discussing. This is inthe same vein as Jeff Cunningham‘s Untold Legends of the Pro Tour (I will reuse the name if Jeff gives me permission) in that it’s an excuse toget people to tell great stories.

My first instinct was to ignore the message and just pretend like I never received it when Ted brought it up in the future. After all, to Ted’s point, today’s readers didn’t really seem to be looking for anecdotal articles about past events that have no bearing on Magic today. Also, I wasn’t particularly excited about having to write an article as a follow-up to something Jeff Cunningham had written. It’d be like taking a deck designed by Pat Chapin and handing it over to Bennie Smith for “fine tuning.” That said, given the people who signed on to do it, I figured, who was I to turn down an opportunity to rehash old glories?

So today I’d like to talk to you about one of the more interesting Pro Tours I have ever played in, PT New Orleans 2003. There were many storylines from this PT, but I’ll highlight some of the standouts.

1. The Evil Empire that is YMG

Before there was ChannelFireball, there was Your Move Games. Both teams have a lot of similarities. They both contained several players who were considered the best in the world in their respective eras. They both expanded their membership over time to absorb other great players. And both teams dominated events, placing several of their members into the Top 8 at a time.

But there was one fundamental difference between the two super teams that stands out to me. While ChannelFireball appears to be beloved by the rest of the Pro community, Your Move Games was more or less hated at the time. Now don’t get me wrong; I was friends with most of the YMG players on a personal level, but from a competitive standpoint, they were the evil empire. My team in particular, CMU/Togit, had a long-standing rivalry with Your Move Games that stemmed from a tournament that ran on the Northeast called, of all things, the “Grudge Match.”

Today, if a member of ChannelFireball wins a major event, they’re greeted by a wave of celebratory tweets and Facebook posts from their peers. When YMG’s own Justin Gary won Pro Tour Houston, I think the best Joshua Ravitz could muster was “nice job, idiot.” They had this elite swagger that only people from Boston could have, their team shirts were all black with a red dragon on them, and the worst thing was that they were really good. They were the closest thing to Cobra Kai that we had on the Pro Tour, which made them the perfect rivals.  

Before Pro Tour New Orleans, it was heralded that YMG had acquired several new members. The players of note were Brian Kibler, Eric Froehlich, Jeff Cunningham, Gabe Walls, and . . . Jon Finkel. Now, most of you might not understand what a big deal this was, but Finkel joining YMG was like if Derek Jeter had joined the Red Sox. So not only did you have an even more absurd collection of talent on one team, but New Orleans was an Extended Pro Tour. Keep in mind, that it was just one year before (at PT Houston) that YMG had broken the Extended format and placed three of their own into the Top 8 (with Justin Gary eventually winning the tournament). Things weren’t looking good for the rest of us.

Then something incredible happened, the maindeck that they were testing dropped right into our laps. I’m not sure how things are done today, but back then, Constructed decks were treated like national-security level secrets. There were a lot of teams out there, and between the PT, the Masters, and the end-of-year payout, there was a lot of money on the line at any given event. Everyone was paranoid, and no one wanted their tech to get out.

To give you an idea of how crazy we were back then, before PT Yokohama in 2003, William “Baby Huey” Jensen and I were in my room testing for the Masters series that was about to take place. My hotel was in Yokohama harbor, which has one of the largest Ferris wheels in the entire world located right outside my window. Huey was convinced that Rob Dougherty was on the Ferris wheel with a pair of binoculars watching us play the Tinker mirror and made me sit with my back to the window.

Given the amount of secrecy back then, you can imagine how surprised we were with the YMG leak. The way the leak happened was actually pretty random. Matt Rubin was a friend of ours who grew up in NJ but was going to school up in Boston. One day he was at YMG headquarters drafting when he got up to go to the bathroom. As he was in the bathroom, Tom Guevin walked in and started going on and on about how good their Food Chain Goblin deck had been performing and how they were going to win the Pro Tour again. Matt couldn’t overhear the entire deck list as he was busy dropping a deuce, but he heard the namesake and got the basic idea. He emailed our mailing list the second he got home and within an hour, Andrew Cuneo was able to reverse-engineer a list, and we added it to our gauntlet.

The funny thing was that while their deck was good, we still had a better Tinker deck, so it didn’t affect our decision as to which deck to play. However, the news of their leak spread like wildfire, and YMG needed to make an adjustment. They decided rather than play the Goblin deck, they’d play a Scepter Oath deck designed to beat the Goblin deck that got leaked, which they felt would allow them to regain the advantage. What they
didn’t anticipate was how bad their deck was against Tinker and how many Tinker decks ended up being played. [
The common nickname for the Pro Tour in MTG history is PT: Tinker. – CardGame


In the end, YMG had one of their worst performances ever, while almost everyone on CMU/Togit ended up making money. The irony of all this was that a year later, Jeff Cunningham actually stole our decks for PT Philadelphia. What comes around, goes around I suppose.

2. Wizards decides to shake things up

Wizards of the Coast has made some interesting changes to the Pro Tour over time. Some have lasted, and some haven’t. For instance, at Pro Tour San Diego in 2004, Wizards had a new system where they’d text you your pairings. This was an interesting innovation that they just couldn’t get quite right, which was evident when I got a text message at 3 a.m. one day informing me that I was paired against Mark Herberholz at table 148. PT New Orleans was a stop where Wizards tried out two new things, one of which has lasted the test of time and one of which crashed and burned almost immediately.

The first development was that Wizards added a round to each day of the Swiss. Instead of fourteen rounds, there would be a total of sixteen rounds of
Swiss competition, eight each day. When I first heard about this I thought,
“Outrageous, how do they expect me to play eight rounds of Magic in a single day!?”

Given that we live in an era of ten-round Grand Prix Day 1s, you can see how far we’ve come. In the end this was clearly a great addition that remains with us today.

The other innovation wasn’t nearly as successful but was actually much more accepted by the players at the time. Basically, at the beginning of Day 2, Wizards informed us that they were going to post the decklists of the competitors along the walls of the tournament area. So basically, they’d announce the pairings, and then hoards of Magic players would run (well, okay, walk briskly) to the decklist wall and check out their opponent’s deck. High-profile players loved this because most of the unknown players would know what you were playing at this point in the tournament, but you’d almost never know what they were running. This gave us complete information and allowed us to make the optimal decisions regarding which opening hands to keep.

It only lasted one Pro Tour, and I have no idea why they ended it, but it did help me win at least one round I shouldn’t have. In the final round, I was paired against a Reanimator player who won the die roll and elected to play first. He cast a Cabal Therapy, and I got sick to my stomach. I had two Grim Monoliths in my hand, and that’s usually the first card people name in this matchup on turn 1. He named Gilded Drake, which was awkward because it wasn’t even in my maindeck, which he should’ve known. I ended up winning that game and the match and asked him afterwards why he chose Gilded Drake.

“Well, it would’ve been very good against the hand I had.”

“But I don’t play it the main?”

“It says you do on your decklist.”

I walked over to the deck list wall and sure enough, they had printed two Gilded Drakes instead of two Gilded Lotuses in my maindeck. So this was the first time a mis-registered deck actually resulted in a game win.

3. I’ll concede, I have a flight to catch

Nicolas Labarre and Yann Hamon were two French teammates who built a Goblin Charbelcher combo deck that ran Mana Severance to secure the kill, nicknamed “The Clock.” The deck was very fast, claiming a 45% turn 3 win percentage. It was probably “the deck” of the tournament, placing both players (along with a young Gabriel Nassif running a different variation) into the Top 8.

However, I guess they weren’t as confident in their chances prior to the tournament because they’d booked their return flights to Paris on Sunday morning. After hearing they made Top 8, they both checked with the airline to see if they could change their flights. Unfortunately, the best they could find was a one-way flight that was in excess of $1,000. That meant that if they lost in the first round, they would have to give up 15% of their winnings just to change their flight. The one piece of good news they did get was that they’d be paired against one another in the quarterfinals. Since they both had a 50/50 split with one another, they asked Wizards if they could just play their match Saturday night to decide who would go on to the Top 4, so the other could still make their flight. Wizards refused and said that they’d have to play out their match. Yann and Nicolas still couldn’t see paying $1,000 just to catch a later flight, so they decided to just go back to their hotel and play out their quarterfinal match in their room.

The next morning, Yann showed up for the Top 8, and Nicolas was on a flight back to Paris. Since he was a no-show, Wizards had no choice but to forfeit Nicolas and allow Yann to move onto the semifinals, where he ended up losing to the eventual winner, Rickard Osterberg. Wizards investigated the incident afterwards, but in the end, nothing came of it. The best part of all this was that Labarre’s flight ended up being delayed by about 3 hours, so had he actually played and lost his first round, he still would’ve been able to make it on time.

Next time on Untold Legends . . .

What Magic player won a major tournament and ended up losing money on it through splits?

Who did Wizards bring a professional hairstylist to the tournament center for right before their Top 8 match?

Why does Cedric Phillips wear a suit on Day 1 of the Pro Tour?

All this and more next time.


Osyp “Joe Black” Lebedowicz

@Osypl on Twitter