Untold Legends – The Zvi Makeover

Monday, November 15th – While there were many interesting episodes in my Magic career, none were quite as epic as the tale of Pro Tour New York 1999 and the makeover of Zvi Mowshowitz.

Normally I like to introduce the people who are writing the Untold Legends to be sure our newer readers have a sense of perspective for what they’re about to read. For this one, I’ll simply say it is a reminder that Magic itself creates ridiculous situations and stories that require no embellishment whatsoever to amaze you.

Kyle Sanchez + strip club + yakuza? Would I lie to you?
Mark Zadjner lighting up a fat J outside the Philly convention center and getting shipped off to jail? Just a normal Saturday.
Eivind Nitter, naked and handcuffed to a bed? I wasn’t there.

Anyway, what you are about to read needs no further introduction than to say it is accurate, and it happened. That should be enough.


Update: Photos of the makeover have been found, special thanks to Anand Khare! And of course, thank you to Jack Stanton who snapped these shots.

While there were many interesting episodes in my Magic career, none were quite as epic as the tale of Pro Tour New York 1999 and the makeover of Zvi Mowshowitz.

The time was May 1, 1999. The place: Secaucus, New Jersey.

Wait a minute, you might say. Wasn’t this supposed to be about Pro Tour New York? Turns out, hosting a large event such as a Magic Pro Tour in New York City isn’t exactly cheap. Event managers at Wizards of the Coast approached this problem with creative flair, labeling anything within reach of Manhattan using a single tank of gas as part of New York. Either that or they were really bad at geography. To be fair, Secaucus was actually an improvement over Rye Brook — a previous venue for Pro Tour New York and arguably the worst Pro Tour location of all time.

New Jersey resident Jon Finkel was Player of the Year in ’99. This entitled him to free hotel and airfare to every Pro Tour stop of that season. Finkel did not want the complimentary airfare to go to waste. He checked with Wizards to see if the free flight could be transferred to one of his friends. Wizards would not accommodate this but also didn’t want to deprive Finkel of his Player of the Year benefit for this Pro Tour entirely. Their solution was to rent a limo for him, making sure that Jon’s thirty-minute commute from his Fanwood, New Jersey, home to the Meadowlands Exposition Center would be nice and comfortable.

Also residing within a thirty-minute ride of Secaucus was a rising young Magic star by the name of Zvi Mowshowitz. Zvi honed his Magic skills at the legendary Neutral Ground in New York City. He had already built quite a reputation as a talented and versatile deckbuilder and Magic pundit but had only a few high-profile tournament finishes to boast about on his resume. Zvi was eager to prove that he could play the game as well as he could theorize about it. He joined the recently formed team Mogg Squad and worked with West Coast counterparts Scott Johns and Alan Comer to design “Zero Effect” — an Urza Block Constructed deck that was capable of generating infinite mana via Tolarian Academy / Palinchron combo and win by casting Stroke of Genius.

When the Pro Tour finally began, Zvi was off to a poor start. Although his combo was working well, a crucial part of it was missing. “It was totally my fault,” Zvi later told reporter Kim Eikefet. “I drew my deck, and there was no Palinchron there.” He literally forgot to put this key card into his deck. Fortunately he did register the Palinchron on his decklist, so he was able to fix the problem before the beginning of second round. From that point on, the deck was performing like a well-oiled machine. “I didn’t mulligan once throughout the entire tournament,” Zvi recalled on Saturday evening. After fourteen rounds of Swiss, he was entering Top 8 at the top of the standings.

measuring zvi for a fitting
Zvi had proven that he could play with the best. He wasn’t, however, quite ready to look good on camera doing it. At twenty, Zvi was overweight; he had a thick tangle of hair several months overdue for a trim and a full beard. He wore shorts throughout much of the year, often combined with a well-worn Pro Tour freebie t-shirt. In short, he looked a lot more like a negatively stereotypical Magic player than the image of a professional mind athlete that Wizards of the Coast public relations people were trying to cultivate.

Enter Jeff Donais. Jeff held the position of DCI manager at Wizards of the Coast, which effectively put him in charge of the Pro Tour. Jeff had a great sense of the dramatic. It was most likely he who came up with the idea of providing Jon Finkel with the limo ride to this Pro Tour. It was certainly he who offered Zvi a full makeover, at Wizards’ expense. Zvi eagerly accepted. Now it was a matter of time, and logistics. It was past 7 pm on a Saturday night, and Top 8 would begin playing on the following morning.

A hair stylist was called in for a 9 pm appointment at the convention center. A group of volunteers, including Julie Callahan and Jack Stanton, was dispatched to accompany Zvi to a nearby mall in search of a better wardrobe. They made it back in time for the nine o’clock appointment. Trouble was, the hair stylist never showed up, and no one at his company was picking up the phone. Closer to 10 pm, the entire plan was in serious danger of failing because of a single unreliable barber. Since my hometown of Brooklyn, NY, is relatively local to the venue, Jeff asked me if I might know a barber there that would consider coming out to Secaucus at this late hour. Without hesitation I replied: “I don’t personally, but I know just the right guy to ask.”

My friend Steve co-owned a small game and sports cards store in Brooklyn called Shadow World at the time. He was the kind of guy who always knew the right person to call in any situation. If anyone could find a barber at ten in the evening on a Saturday night, it was Steve. I called him and summarized the situation. Naturally, Steve thought I was pulling his leg. It took a few minutes of convincing from me, but it wasn’t until Jeff Donais himself got on the phone that Steve finally accepted that we were serious. He then sprung into action and half an hour later called to let us know that the cavalry was on its way.

It turned out that even Steve couldn’t find a professional hairdresser on such short notice. Fortunately his girlfriend’s best friend’s mother owned a hair salon. The daughter wasn’t a hair dresser per se, but she could cut hair, and after much cajoling from Steve, agreed to pick up some supplies from her mother’s salon and take a ride out to Secaucus along with Steve, his girlfriend, and her other friend. Three women preparing to go somewhere on such short notice took exactly as long as it sounds, so it wasn’t until well after midnight that Steve’s car pulled up to the convention center entrance.

The next step of our plan called for a base of operations where Zvi could have his shave and haircut. There aren’t a whole lot of spaces within the convention center that fit the bill. We needed a place that offered both privacy and running water, a place that no one at all was using during the late evening hours at the Pro Tour. The one clear choice was the women’s bathroom.

Imagine, if you will, the open play area of a Pro Tour late at night. It’s very quiet. A bunch of people are drafting or playing an odd Constructed game. A few, unfortunate souls who were unable or unwilling to rent a hotel room are sleeping on or under the chairs, taking advantage of the fact that the tournament area is open all night. You can see a few trade binders here and there, but their owners hardly have the energy to negotiate deals.


Suddenly, there’s a commotion. A small group of players, judges, and event coverage staff walk in the front door with a trio of good-looking young women in tow. All eyes are on us, widening as we stroll across the event hall, walk into the bathroom, and close the door. The late-night drafters and traders are left wondering what the heck is happening. We post Jeff’s brother Mike Donais at the door as a sentry, just in case.

The girls take their best shot at Zvi’s hair. It’s slow work. They struggle with scissors and a shaving razor. There’s hair everywhere. Jack Stanton is frantically snapping pictures. The rest of us are having the time of our lives, cracking jokes and being of no help whatsoever. Mike Donais abandons his post after a while to join in.

At one point the door opens, and a woman walks in. She is clearly not in any way a part of the Pro Tour. She’s dressed up in an elegant evening gown and is wearing expensive jewelry. She must have been driving past the convention center and stopped to use the restroom. She stares at the scene before her for a few seconds, taking it all in. I’ll never forget the look on her face, yet I could never quite describe it, either. All of us stare back at her in a scene that could’ve been from a silent movie. Very slowly, she backs up and closes the door again. We’re all silent for several more seconds and then start laughing hysterically. That evening I learned that it is indeed possible to laugh so hard it hurts.

The next morning Top 8 players are called to the stage. Zvi’s transformation is so complete that many of the players in the audience literally don’t recognize him. He’s clean-shaven and smartly dressed. He’s wearing khaki pants, a belt, and a button-down shirt. Only the frames of his glasses are the same, but they fit his face well, thanks to his new hairstyle.

Zvi went on to win his quarterfinals match against Terry Tsang. He lost to the eventual champion Casey McCarrel in the semis, earning a very respectable third place finish. There would be many more victories in his career, culminating in the Hall of Fame induction in 2007. In his Hall of Fame interview, Zvi referred to the PTNY makeover as his best memory on the Pro Tour.

The only unfortunate part of this story is that photos taken by Jack Stanton appear to be lost. His laptop containing them and many others was stolen a number of years back. The photos were initially posted on The Dojo, but none seem to have survived in any of the archives. If anyone out there still has them or can suggest any leads please contact StarCityGames.com. I’m sure they would be happy to post them alongside this article.

Some of the found pictures:

over the sink
magic cover
Hovering girls
hair done
shaving zvi
look in the mirror
final zvi