Untold Legends – The Greatest Topdeck of All Time

Wednesday, November 3rd – Hall of Famer Randy Buehler recounts one of the most epic, most historic moments on the Pro Tour and shares a lesson in not making bets you’re sure to regret…

Randy Buehler. Pro Tour Winner. Hall of Fame member.

Former director of Magic R&D. Voice of the Pro Tour. Draft addict. Multiple-time, random-ass board game world champion (okay, not so random, really).

The ultimate gamer?

One of the judgments you rarely hear about Randy is ‘criminally underrated writer.’ He is. His column on the Mothership was a joy to read. His gaming blog (


) is even more so. The man has made Magic history himself. He has seen and commentated more Magic history than anyone. He has a library of Magic moments inside his head that would give Wikipedia a run for its money.

Even so, from the day I first met him — me a cub reporter and him already a giant of Magic deigning to come down from his ivory tower and visit the world — I always just called him ‘Randall’ or ‘RandallBee.’

It was my way of showing defiance in the face of all that power and masculinity.

With apologies to
Craig Jones
and the man with the
yellow hat,

neither of them actually had the greatest topdeck in the history of the Pro Tour. That honor has got to go to Kai Budde, on his way to winning his fifth PT, at New Orleans 2001. I’m not sure how “untold” the story is, but I never hear anyone talk about it these days, and none of the video from that event appears in any of WotC’s archives so here we go…

The basic outline of the story is probably familiar to most of you. Kai burst onto the scene by winning three Grand Prix in early 1999 and then claimed Player of the Year by winning Worlds that summer. However, Kai failed to make any Top 8s the next season, and Finkel firmly established himself as the best player in the game by sweeping the individual and team titles at Worlds 2000. Kai’s truly historic dominance began the next season when he won Chicago 2000 to become only the third person to ever win two PTs (tying Hovi and Finkel) and then won Barcelona that same season to become the first person to win three and also the first (and still only) two-time PoY.

It probably should’ve been clear by then that he was officially The Man, but there were a number of people (myself included) who still believed that Jonny Magic was better. After all, Jon had more Top 8s (still does, by the way), and seeing who ran good on a couple of Sundays was no way to decide who we’d put up against the aliens if they showed up and demanded that we play one match of Magic with the fate of the planet on the line.

When Phoenix Foundation won the
Team PT in New York

to kick off the 2001-2002 season, the question was put to me directly in the Top 8 broadcast booth: Is that good enough? What else does Kai have to do in order to get you to admit he’s the best player in the history of the game?! My answer was “Win New Orleans.” In retrospect that was pretty unfair… no one else had won three PTs, and he’d now won four. However, I wasn’t alone in my doubts of Kai. Eric Taylor proclaimed loudly that there was no way Kai could possibly win back-to-back PTs, and if Kai won New Orleans then edt would eat his hat.

Flash-forward a couple of months, and Kai was running a U/R version of the Illusions-Donate combo deck. Necropotence was banned in Extended by then,
but you could still put the combo together using Merchant Scroll, Intuition, and Accumulated Knowledge for card advantage.
Kai’s version

also had the sweet anti-control plan of being able to transform into a better control deck, swapping out his combo for three Morphlings, two Strokes of Genius, and four Pyroblasts.

Team Your Move Games had a nice reanimator build (known affectionately as “Benzo” after, I believe, the guy who ran Mono-Black Reanimator at the store for years and years even when it was terrible), but Kai steamrolled Hall of Famers Darwin Kastle and David Humphreys 3-0 each in the quarters and semis. I have a vivid memory of Kai winning one game against Darwin where he figured out that his only chance was to draw exactly Illusions of Grandeur followed by exactly Donate. He played for it, and then lo and behold, there they were on the top of his deck. But that’s not the topdeck I want to talk about.

The finals was against Tomi Walamies — one of the all-time Good Men who ever played our great game. Tomi got tired of losing to Call of the Herd while testing his U/W Control deck, so he wound up splashing green and including Elephants of his own (the synergy with his Intuitions was particularly nice). Tomi took game 1 (despite a mulligan to six) thanks to a pair of Elephant tokens and a Seal of Cleansing against a mediocre draw from Kai. After sideboarding into his anti-control control deck, Kai took game 2 thanks to a wave of card advantage (which set up Capsize with three Sapphire Medallion). Tomi got Kai down to one in game 3, but card advantage once again fueled a Budde win, this time on the back of a Morphling. A timely Hydroblast to counter Kai’s Pyroblast allowed Tomi to win the key permission war in game 4. He had to use Wrath of God to wipe out his Elephants along with a pesky Morphling, but Rootwater Thief plinked away for the last two points of damage, and they were headed for game 5.

Game 5 started badly for Tomi. He mulliganed down to six and then had to tap out on turn 2 just to cantrip his way through a Gaea’s Blessing. This let Kai Intuition for the three copies of Accumulated Knowledge that weren’t already in his hand. Tomi did find the land he needed to cast Call of the Herd, but Kai was able to draw three cards with one AK and then draw four more with the other. Stroke for three and another Pyroblast, this time stopping Tomi’s Fact or Fiction, seemed to put Budde in control of the game. However, from my seat in the Top 8 broadcast booth, I was watching from Kai’s hand and could see the truth: it was full of nothing but land.

Kai was up a million cards, but Tomi had gotten two Elephant tokens into play. Kai went to thirteen the turn Tomi resolved his second Elephant. Ice tapped one, so Kai fell only to ten on the following turn. One turn later Kai was down to four, his Stroke for three had come up empty, and he had just one draw phase left before he extended his hand and congratulated Tomi on winning the Pro Tour.

Think about the stakes here, especially given how history actually unfolded. Kai isn’t yet the consensus best player of all time, but he silences all his doubters with a win here. Eric Taylor was in the audience holding and eyeing his trademark hat, wondering why on earth he’d opened his big mouth.
Meanwhile Pat Chapin was feeling no sympathy for his buddy edt. Pat had placed a friendly wager on Kai to win the Pro Tour about halfway through Day 2
at even odds.

The bet at those odds had seemed absurd to everyone at the time (Kai hadn’t even clinched Top 8 yet), but here Pat was one game away from collecting. And, oh by the way, no one had ever won back-to-back Pro Tours (and no one has done it since, either).

With all that history on the line in game 5, things had been looking good as Kai won all the permission battles he needed to gain a bunch of card advantage. All he had to do to “establish control” was mop up those two Elephant tokens. However, as his deck failed to deliver up a Morphling or a Capsize, time was running out. On four life, staring across at a pair of 3/3s, nothing in play but land, and with nothing useful in his hand, the gig appeared to be up. One last draw phase before he extended his hand and… what’s this?!… Morphling! Kai was able to play Morphling, block a token, pump Morphling’s toughness (damage still went on the stack at the time, of course, so the Elephant died, but Morphling didn’t), and survive at one
life. From there the Morphling was able to attack while also threatening to untap and play defense. A few turns later, it was Tomi who was extending

hand as Kai locked up just about every “greatest of all time” stat anyone has ever thought up.

Nassif’s topdeck was pretty awesome for the way Gab set it up, arranging his mana “just in case.” It was nice that it came in game 5 and thus single-handedly swung the match, but it came in the quarterfinals, so it comes up well short of “greatest ever” in my mind.

Craig Jones‘s Lightning Helix was also a game 5, but it was a semifinal and not a final. I’m particularly happy with the way I saw that possibility coming and setup the moment during the webcast. Despite Mike Flores yammering on even after the topdeck about something that didn’t matter (love ya, Mike), I saw the same line of play that Craig did. Olivier also figured out exactly what was up as soon as Craig thought forever and then Charred him; so the result, at Olivier’s urging, was a super-dramatic reveal that swung $18,000 in prize money and is probably the highlight of my play-by-play career. However, it was still just a semi. Kai’s Morphling was not only game 5 of the finals, but that finals had about as much history on the line as any final match has ever had.

The lasting image for me isn’t
Kai’s smile.

edt eating his hat.

If you read that article (one of Ben Bleiweiss best ever, in my opinion), you can practically hear Walamies, with a deadpan shrug so good that he’s now a professional comedian, “Sorry… he drew the Morphling.”

SIDEBAR: Fastest to 100

PT New Orleans came right in the middle of Kai’s three consecutive Player of the Year titles. It also came at the end of a truly absurd streak where he won four Pro Tours in a span of eleven months (!!) and obliterated the record for “fastest accumulation of 100 Pro Points.” There were more PTs at the time (six), but whatever. While there may not have been a four-PT run that adds up to 100 points in there, I believe there are two different five-PT streaks that break triple digits (also counting GPs, of course).

The more commonly talked about version of that record, however, is actually on the line at Worlds in Chiba. The fastest accumulation of 100 Pro Points to start a career is currently me. I pulled it off in seven PTs (helped a fair amount by seven GP Top 8s in a one-year span after winning my first PT convinced me to take a sabbatical from grad school). Brad Nelson currently has 90 lifetime Pro Points and has been to six PTs.

SIDEBAR: The surprise ending

My PT wasn’t won on a topdeck, but the final play was in fact a surprise to pretty much
everyone involved.

I was up 2-1 with my three-color Necro deck against David Mills’ W/U/R Control; however his turn 2 Dwarven Miner was causing me major issues in game 4. I had two basic Swamps, but my other lands were two copies of Lake of the Dead.

I did have a Drain Life so in theory I could drop the Lake, sac a Swamp to play the Lake, sac another Swamp to power the Lake, and generate enough mana to Drain Life the Miner for four. However, if he had Force of Will, he’d stop the Drain, untap, Miner away my Lake, and I’d have literally no lands and no hope. So I declined that line of play on turn 3 and just played out a pump Knight, hoping to draw a less risky answer.

What I drew instead were a bunch more pump Knights, which I kept playing out, going through the motions as I waited for a Frenetic Efreet and a Wildfire Emissary to kill me. I was mostly thinking about how many Terrors to bring in for game 5 when he surprised me a little bit by not putting the Miner in front of a pump Knight (and also not Bolting it) and instead going down to four. I’d been playing the whole game assuming he must have some form of permission, but it was time to make him show me something. I dropped the Lake, made six mana, and announced “Drain Life for four.”

David Mills stammering “Th-th-that works?” remains one of the happiest memories of my life. My response was an incredulous “You don’t have a counterspell?!” followed immediately by “Oh my god, I just won the Pro Tour!”

I’m struggling to think of another Pro Tour where the actual ending was such a surprise. It’s usually a handshake and a shrug before the last lethal attack actually happens. In this case, Mills was apparently bad at Lake-Drain math; neither of the announcers saw it coming, and I was surprised even to have the opportunity to go through the motions of a counterspell check, much less have him fail to show me one. There can’t be many more times where the ‘death blow’ came out of nowhere like that. Are there?

P.S. For the record, I played that Scrubland[/author]“][author name="Scrubland"]Scrubland[/author] into the Miner on purpose. It had zero value in my hand so why not see if Mills messed up? (Or got overconfident, which is what seems to have actually happened.)