Competitive Magic was in a state of flux in 2011. Recovering from New Phyrexia, players were getting ready for their first visit to Innistrad (with these cards that had two sides somehow?!). After the first Standard bans in years took out Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic, an Extended Pro Tour likely to be overrun by those cards was on the horizon.
A whirlwind of activity that summer led to the creation of Modern — now the most popular competitive format in paper — and one of the most exciting tournaments in the history of the Pro Tour.
Ten years later, as we await fresh horrors from our third trip to Innistrad, we revisit these stories too.
We’re thankful to the following for sharing their memories and time with us:
- Gavin Verhey, Senior Magic Designer at Wizards of the Coast and creator of Overextended.
- Tom LaPille, Game Designer at Wizards of the Coast from 2008-2014 who was tasked with the creation of what became the Modern format.
- Zac Hill, Lead Game Designer at Wizards of the Coast from 2009-2012.
- Brian David-Marshall, Pro Tour Historian and Commentator.
- Nathan Holt, Producer of Enter the Battlefield and Walking the Planes.
- Samuele Estratti, Josh Utter-Leyton, Sam Black, Jesse Hampton, Max Sjöblom – Members of the Top 8 at Pro Tour Philadelphia.
- Luis Scott-Vargas, Magic Hall of Fame member and captain of Team ChannelFireball.
- Alexander Hayne, Josh Hakakian, Dan Sondike, Zaiem Beg – Competitors at Pro Tour Philadelphia.
- Joey Pasco, Photojournalist whose work is used throughout this article.
Extended interviews with many of these guests can be found in the episodes of Dominaria’s Judgment that accompany this article, with transcripts found at the end here.
Gavin: The thing you have to understand about Pro Tour Philadelphia is there’s never been any Pro Tour like it and I don’t know if there will ever be one again.
In 2011, the largest and most common non-Standard format on the competitive calendar was Extended. Although Extended was popular with heavily invested players, it failed to gain wider traction as sporadic rotations and lack of continuity in gameplay across its iterations undermined its appeal. It was marketed as the place to use your rotating Standard cards; a scary prospect at this time, with the scourge of Caw-Blade just excised from that format. With these structural issues and this immediate problem in mind, the hunt was on for an alternative.
Tom: The product design point of view is we need to give players something to do with cards that have rotated out of the rotating format — which is theoretically the reason people are excited about your mainline booster set releases. Extended was four years of sets and it would grow to seven years, and every three years Extended would throw out the previous three years of cards. We messed around with Extended where we made it seven years and it rotated every one year, we made it four years and rotating every one year, we tried a bunch of things. And there was a point where Aaron came to me and said it was clear we need a non-rotating format to be a side-dish.
Zac: Extended had all the problems of other rotating formats without any of the upsides. Like Standard it rotated so it’s not like you could keep an Extended deck together for years and years, and yet it only extended so far back so it wasn’t like you have some cards you remember from your favourite time in Magic and see which of those you can play — you couldn’t do that either. So unless you were a PTQ regular/mainstay, there wasn’t much the format could do for you. I feel bad saying that because it’s my all-time favorite format but I was in a very small minority of people in that regard.
Gavin: I always really enjoyed Extended, it was one of my favourite formats to play. But the problem was that people only played it during the time you were told to play Extended. Extended originally was envisioned as a place you could take your Standard decks when they rotated out. That wasn’t really what was happening for most players, the decks were very different. For a less enfranchised player it didn’t seem like the format to get into.
As Tom LaPille was brainstorming alternatives to Extended, a young Gavin Verhey was brainstorming ways to get his foot in the door at Wizards of the Coast. His grassroots format, Overextended, was intended to catch the attention of designers there but caught the attention of players across the world as well as the team tasked with finding Extended’s replacement.
Gavin: I was talking with Brian Kowal about how there are all these sweet cards you couldn’t play anywhere. They had rotated out of Extended, they weren’t good in Legacy or Vintage. It was public knowledge from Wizards of the Coast that Extended wasn’t super hot, people didn’t enjoy it. So when Brian and I were talking, we had the initial seeds for this idea, a non-rotating format from a specific point. I’m trying to get this job at Wizards, I wonder if I could use launching a format to parlay my way into getting their attention. A lot of people say ‘Gavin designed Modern’, it’s a shortcut but it’s not the whole story — while I was thinking these thoughts I had no idea of knowing Wizards was working on a parallel track to create a non-rotating format.
I have the site all ready to go, I’m ready to launch it on Monday and I have this huge article — ‘Overextended: Show Up or Shut Up’ — and on Friday Wizards posts that they are running Modern in the [Magic Online] Community Cup. You could see this as getting scooped but I knew there would be so much chatter around this and nobody had done as much work on a non-rotating format as I had. It took off — I started running events on Magic Online, I had to pair it by hand!
I ran National Overextended Day with people all over the world running those events in their store, it picked up a ton of traction.
Three months came and went, there was an article by Tom LaPille introducing Modern as a real format, it’s going to take over PT Philadelphia and replace Extended… in the article announcing it, this meant so much to me — they say Gavin’s Overextended was huge and influential in what happened here, thanks to Gavin for accelerating this process. Not long afterwards I was hit up by Wizards to take the test to come work for them.
Modern’s First Steps
Tom: We were going to have to invent a brand-new tournament format out of nothing and get players to accept it was a valid thing which was not something we’d done before at the time.
One of the big questions is: what is the cutoff here? I eventually landed on 8th Edition and Mirrodin because, of all the arbitrary things, that is where the card frame changed. The highest priority at the time was getting players to believe this thing was legitimate at all and the card frame, with that reasoning, tested best. The best pure game design decision would have been 9th Edition + Ravnica, that’s when we actually got good at making Standard formats… that explanation got people to tilt their heads and roll their eyes at me.
We wanted Modern to not be broken in the same way as past formats that people didn’t like. Faeries was all over Standard and four-year Extended for a while. I don’t think Bitterblossom’s going to be a problem if you’re allowed to play all the things you’re allowed to play in Modern but better safe than sorry.
We banned the obviously screwed up things and the things that if they screwed up in that particular way the appearance would be very bad. Later on we started unbanning things in the [second] category but it was important that the launch go well so we banned ‘too many’ things to be safe.
LSV: When they announced Modern the first time it was going to be unveiled was actually at the Community Cup in 2011 and I was on the Community Cup team!
The format was completely wide open — you could play with Hypergenesis, Glimpse of Nature, you could play with Jace and Stoneforge Mystic. Bitterblossom was actually banned in [that] Modern, as funny as that might seem now. The whole format was our playground and we got to build decks with some of these wild cards.
Zac: We came into the tournament thinking our chances were very good and I think we ended up getting destroyed, largely due to the efforts of Gavin Verhey who at the time was on the community team!
One of the things we were trying to do with the Community Cup was to give an opportunity to break some of the parameters of Modern so we could ban anything egregious before it got out into the wild. We wanted to allow for a bit of a ridiculous free-for-all.
Are You Happy In This Modern World?
After this more casual debut, Modern was ready for the big stage. With just three weeks to go until Pro Tour Philadelphia, competitors woke up to a bombshell. They would no longer be playing a new but already stale Extended format — they were the guinea pigs for the great Modern experiment.
Tom: There was about to be an Extended Pro Tour that, if we didn’t ban something, was going to be Caw-Blade all over again in a four-year Extended format, so with three weeks to go we threw caution to the wind and told everyone the format would be Modern.
Zac: It was obviously very controversial to shift the format of the Pro Tour — we knew it would be difficult on the players and confound expectations for the viewers. Pro Tours need to serve a strategic objective — one version of that is selling Magic cards. You’re not going to sell Magic cards if you’re promoting a [Extended] format that isn’t going to exist after the tournament happens. I don’t just mean from a cynical corporate perspective; it’s not cool to do something awesome and exciting and then say actually you can never do that. I think that’s a bad and borderline manipulative experience.
Samuele: My reaction can be described in one word: hype. The Italians are not famous for their will to test decks so a new format would place everyone almost at the same level.
Josh Utter-Leyton: Having a Pro Tour that’s a brand-new, completely unexplored format is SO much fun! It’s what I love most about Magic — building new decks and figuring things out from scratch.
Josh Hakakian: My first reaction was disappointment — I loved Extended! I was kinda devastated, this format wouldn’t be what I was excited about.
Dan: This was my first PT. The format was supposed to be four-block Extended, which I tested with my brother over the dining room table all summer. They switched to a completely new format weeks before the PT. By then I was back at school with no one to test with, so my foray into this completely new format consisted of challenging random people in the Magic Online casual room.
For Wizards of the Coast this was a daring gambit. A Pro Tour that was completely off-the-rails — or, worse, boring! — could ruin any momentum Modern might have and leave it stranded as little more than a new Extended.
Tom: I was really hoping it was exactly what everybody wanted, it would be stable and everything would be fine! The outcome was ‘holy crap, we have to ban a bunch of stuff’. But I think it did the right work because people were excited, we came out and said this would be bananas for a while but let’s all be excited together. I wouldn’t go back and change anything
Zac: We were close to 100% sure that most of the best decks would be ridiculous. The thesis was very much to [allow] most of the ban-worthy cards so we can initiate an onslaught of bans early on so as to not continuously be banning reams of cards for years and years. We figured it would be ridiculous and we wanted to lean into that, to say this format is crazy and we don’t know what’s going to happen! We’re excited to see what players come up with and really want to shake it up.
BDM: You have to expect the teams that are putting in so much work and brainpower and rigour for these events, they are going to be able to crack the formula for a new format. The big news from a coverage perspective, the thing you wanted to know — what was Team CFB doing? What did they build, how did they do it? They had really transformed how people approached competitive Magic.
Competitors now had the uniquely daunting mission of preparing for a brand-new format. Those without much or any Pro Tour experience were thrown in at the deep end — if they could understand the difficulty of their task. Meanwhile, a dominant Team ChannelFireball turned their formidable talents to this new problem.
LSV: We were definitely near our peak in terms of ability to prepare, desire to prepare, and fire. 2011 in some senses was my best year of competition and we definitely put a lot of work into the format, with one glaring exception — we were too lazy to put a Splinter Twin deck together! No real reason, no one ever did it. It was like our deck’s gonna be fine against Twin — we’ve got a bunch of Path to Exiles!
Alexander Hayne: I was super nervous. I’d played many PT semi-regulars to help them test before, and the general consensus was that I was the best player by a fair amount, so I had high expectations for the PT. It had taken me around fifteen PTQ top 8s to finally win one, and I sort of felt this was my only chance.
Samuele: I played Pro Tours since 2008 with only average results so the expectations were not high. Even if the professional circuit was well known to me, I always felt Pro Tours were a holiday for me and my friends to enjoy.
Sam: I didn’t care if they were working by themselves or with a team, I felt like my advantage over everyone I played against regardless of how well-connected they were was bigger than any other tournament I’d played!
Good Luck, You May Begin
The first round of Constructed used to be the most exciting round of any Pro Tour weekend. As players and viewers saw the format in action for the first time, those who had made flawed assumptions saw their tournament end once it had just barely begun.
Patrick Chapin: ‘Modern is two aggro decks, Cloudpost, and 21 Belcher decks
Gavin: You’re introducing a brand new format, there’s no testing resources, nobody has played it before, it’s using a bunch of cards that have never been mashed together before.
It was wild. It felt like everyone was doing a broken thing but because everyone was doing a broken thing somehow it was ok. Somehow in this event with Turn 2 Blazing Shoals and Cloudpost casting Emrakul you had people doing well casting Tarmogoyf and Fiery Justice. Nobody knew what was going to be good in this event and that was amazing. I truly don’t know if we’ll ever see anything like it again… it was just a magical feeling, you could tell there was a magic to the format that hadn’t been seen in a long time.
LSV: There was nothing like it — you go play your match, you don’t know who you’re going to play against, you play against a deck and don’t know what it is, you get to walk around and see what did Pantheon bring? What did all these teams bring? What did Shota play this weekend?
It’s so cool seeing what people have come up with even outside your own chances. There’s nothing like that environment in that room. I’ve talked to folks who watch a lot of Pro Tours from home — the round on coverage when they start seeing what decks are featured is a magical moment. We don’t get that any more.
As the Modern rounds continued, the format and the tournament started to take shape. Some of Magic’s biggest names and amateurs trying to make a name for themselves had the Top 8 in their sights going into the home stretch.
Sam: I don’t care about losing, I don’t get tilted when things go badly, but I have an absolutely awful conversion rate [in Top 8s]. I get very excited about success and the possibility of success in a way I think likely hurts me. I have to assume while things were going really well and it looked like I would Top 8, I was probably not playing my best because of being excited about where I was. Fortunately the last rounds were Constructed and my deck was really really good.
Dan Sondike: I started 9-3, mostly due to being good at M12 draft. Then my horrible sleep schedule and lack of experience playing long IRL tournaments caught up with me and I went 0-4 in my last four rounds. I punted my win-and-in to requalify by not knowing the interaction between Spellskite & Venser. I was devastated after the event ended and swore off Magic forever…
Josh Hakakian: Even though I took a loss to Josh Utter-Leyton it looked like if I won the next round I could ID into Top 8. I was late to this round because BDM had pulled me aside for a deck tech and an interview. I was ecstatic, I was on cloud nine! He walks up and starts off the conversation, looks around and shrugs his shoulders — ‘Hey Josh! What’s your story man?’. That was the highlight of my entire time playing Magic — it wasn’t about qualifying, the prizes, it was having an esteemed figure recognize me on a professional level. It was without question the most amazing moment of my Magic career.
I don’t know if that’s when I let my guard down, because I felt like I got there? I don’t think so?
BDM: It was very important to me to acknowledge people’s performance. Josh came really close to making the Top 8 there and he deserves that accolade but that person coming up the stairs to the Pro Tour and just getting to be there for the first time, I also wanted to acknowledge that for people. I know how hard it is, I’ve done it, it’s really difficult! I know people who have spent their whole lives trying to do it despite being very good Magic players.
After his loss to Estratti, Josh Hakakian played — and lost — another win-and-in. A dream that seemed so close had turned to ash.
Josh Hakakian: It wasn’t as devastating as one would imagine. I played to the best of my ability but I made some small mistakes and the small mistakes are what really differentiate you in such a high-caliber field. I made the mistakes, Estratti didn’t. I wasn’t prepared, my last round opponent was. So all in all I was just very happy with being able to be there and play at that level with well-established people. Everyone wants to win when they show up, nobody wants to narrowly miss multiple times. But man — what a day, what an event! I couldn’t beat it!
Play The Game. See The World.
The Top 8 competitors at Pro Tour Philadelphia were an intriguing mix of old and new. Some had already enjoyed Pro Tour glory — for others, this was the start of a long and storied career. One of them was about to be a Pro Tour champion.
Max Sjöblom: I remember feeling like I was “in the zone” or in some type of flow state. This lasted for much of the event, and particularly in the Limited rounds I felt like I could anticipate every trick my opponent had. I ran good, as you have to if you want to make Top 8 in a long event like this, and won the first twelve swiss matches, locking Top 8.
Jesse Hampton: I was on cloud nine after making it into Top 8, as I didn’t really have high expectations going into the event. Looking back on it I was a bit naïve about the whole experience and didn’t realize how lucky I was.
At this time only the Top 8 was broadcast live. Viewers who had waited for days for their first matches of Modern were not disappointed. A close five-game set between the Top 8’s most feared players featured one of the most surprising strategic decisions of all time — covered in great detail in the interviews — and culminated in a thrilling final turn. Sam Black peered through the depths and the depths peered back through him.
Tom: I think the match between Josh Utter-Leyton and Sam Black in the semifinals is one of the most incredible matches of Magic I’ve seen in my entire life.
Sam: My mindset in that Top 8 had been: this deck is awesome, it’s so far ahead in this tournament. I want to do it justice and show people how sweet it is. I don’t want to mess up playing this deck and have it go down in history as not being as good as it was. My mindset wasn’t about what it would mean for me — I was the flagbearer for this amazing creation and I want to make sure this creation got due respect. And I am very happy with my in-game play in that tournament and that Top 8 with the deck.
After an incredible year of tournament performances, ChannelFireball’s Josh Utter-Leyton now found himself in the finals of the Pro Tour playing the biggest match of his career.
Josh Utter-Leyton: I’m very good at focusing, I can tune everything else out and focus on the match. When I’m doing that successfully, I don’t feel the pressure or the stakes — the game is consuming my thoughts. Before and after playing that’s when I feel everything, there’s some amount of concealing how nervous and excited I am before. But then I’m just playing the game of Magic.
I am happy this is the furthest I’ve been but I’m here to win, I really want this and I’m going to be super disappointed if I don’t win this finals.
Josh Utter-Leyton: It’s super satisfying, it’s awesome, it’s incredible to make the finals of a Pro Tour. It’s always frustrating when you lose a match of Magic and the higher the stakes the more frustrating it is.
LSV: Losing in the finals of a Pro Tour is a unique experience. The biggest differences in finish are between 1st/2nd and 8th/9th. If Josh is anything like me — we’re actually very different people but I think we have this part in common — I’m sure that as time goes on he thinks about it less but he thought about it a lot in the many years after that. I still think about the Pro Tour finals I’ve lost and you can’t help but think about it.
You’re not looking at ‘I would have had $20,000 more’ or ‘I would have got into this tournament’, that’s not what it’s about and that’s not what drives most Magic players. It’s ‘I would have been a Pro Tour champion!’. I think that’s something Josh isn’t really going to get over but that’s part of why this game is awesome and part of why I hope there’s something like this in the future. That magic is why we play, the feeling of 1st vs 2nd matters and we all care about it.
Utter-Leyton had to settle for second. Samuele Estratti, a 25-year-old student, catapulted himself and Italian Magic into the spotlight as the winner of the first Modern Pro Tour.
Samuele: The win felt amazing: a powerful emotion spreading all around.
The Italian community was even more enthusiastic than me; it was the first time for us to get the trophy and everyone was mad about it. Many “old” players came back to play the game and, hopefully, see the world.
After ten years it still feels great, I’m still proud of it.
Alexander Hayne: I had spent a lot of time watching PT coverage, which then only had been of Top 8s. I expected the PT to be all awesome players, and I was disappointed. The vast majority were just ok, but watching the best players I could see they were miles ahead. I decided I had a long way to go to get to that level, even if I was better than most of the players playing the PT.
Within eight months, Hayne would pull off a miracle to become a Pro Tour Champion himself. He remained a professional Magic player at the top of the game for the rest of the decade.
Sam: It really did feel like an honour and a privilege just to get to play that deck, and I’m really glad that John Stolzmann both reached out to me and saw me as the kind of person who would be receptive to his crazy outside-the-box combo and take him seriously, give him the time of day, test seriously against it and give it a chance. I’m glad I am that kind of person and that everything came together to get various insights from everyone.
I have a lot of good feelings about my approach to getting information in general and processing ideas from people that I think were really showcased in getting me to that moment.
Max Sjöblom: I had a set of Pyromancer Ascensions altered by the great Eric Klug. My wife later had them framed as a present, and they hung neatly on our bedroom wall for a number of years.
Magic has also had a large influence on things I have done professionally since then. I got my PhD in 2019, studying motivations among people who watch e-sports & streaming. I very much doubt I would have ended up there without the impact of games.
I look back at the event fondly, as one of my favorite Magic memories, and clearly my best competitive finish. I remember especially feeling extremely excited about the new format, and all the possibilities it opened up.
Dan Sondike: …I was devastated after the event ended and swore off Magic forever. That lasted about a month. Modern has been my favorite constructed format ever since.
Pro Tour Philadelphia proved to be life-changing for someone who wasn’t even in the tournament that weekend.
BDM: The memory of the tournament for me just has to be Sam digging through his deck with all those cantrips and Peer Through Depths looking for that Blazing Shoal he needed to win. The odds are so in his favor and it felt almost inevitable and as that inevitability lost its fingerhold, it was pretty crazy.
I remember that and I remember meeting Nate and Shawn from Walking the Planes. I think of Sam futilely digging for that piece and I think of two local guys getting to then travel the world and meet everybody in the world of Magic from the artists to the game designers to the top pros which is another remarkable aspect of Magic beyond just excelling as a player.
Nathan: Samuele Estratti won the Pro Tour and the check that came with it but my collaborator Shawn Kornhauser and I feel like we really won the Pro Tour, we had seven years of professional life ignited by the spark at that event.
We were there to cover the action, talk to the Magic stars, people I was immense fans of and nervous talking to for the first time — Shawn always made fun of me for melting into the floor like a shy middle-school student around people like Sam Black and Jon Finkel. That was our hometown event and I never would have gone if it hadn’t happened where I was living!
We got those press badges through a very funny quid pro quo. Upstairs from the Pro Tour there was a cat convention — cat lovers and cat breeders showing off their beautiful and unusual cats. Because Zoo was a popular Modern deck starring Wild Nacatl, they wanted to get some photos at the cat convention so we had a friend of ours hook them up with a press badge for the cat convention and in exchange we got a press badge for the Pro Tour! It’s funny to think if there was a different deck in Brian Kibler’s hands at that Pro Tour, maybe we don’t get that press badge — all kind of butterfly effect moments.
It’s miraculous to look back at where I was in my life ten years ago, every once in a while I have to look back at a photograph or chat with someone just to remember that did happen, that I was dressed in a wizard robe with Mark Rosewater doing an impression of the Princess Bride.
It was an extraordinary privilege, I felt we were very lucky and I never would have envisaged any of it would have happened at Pro Tour Philly.
The End Is The Beginning
Over the years, Modern became a staple of competitive Magic and the Modern Pro Tour was a must-see event in the professional calendar. Pro Tour Philadelphia kicked off a long and turbulent decade for Modern which is a worthy story in itself — part of it is told by the game’s designers and top players in our interviews with them here. The present story of Modern is still being written — and you can hear it on Dominaria’s Judgment every week!
For full transcripts of all interviews, click here