The End Of The World(s)...
Barring some change of heart on the part of WotC, this weekend marks the last Magic World Championships, at least in the form that we've come to know it. As a sort of tribute, I thought I'd take the opportunity to look back at my experiences at the many World Championships I've played in over the years.
The first time I played in Worlds was in the year 2000, in the summer after my freshman year of college. I'd played in a number of Pro Tours before then, and I'd even won a Grand Prix back in 1997, but I stepped away from the game during my final year of high school to focus on other pursuits. When I got to college at Emory University in Atlanta, GA, I didn't feel particularly challenged by my classes, and I got bored of endless frat parties, so I started looking for something to do with myself.
That was when Lan D. Ho (of the sadly incomplete Magic documentary I Came to Game) convinced me to go to PT Chicago, for which I wasn't qualified, just to hang out. I did just that, and the experience—including helping Lan build his deck the night before and watching him nearly take it to the Top 8—got me fiending for Magic again.
I started playing in PTQs and managed to win one for PT LA, the Mercadian Masques booster draft event in early 2000. But Limited was never my strong suit back then, and I posted a rather unimpressive performance. After several near misses in qualifiers for PT New York (henceforth known only as “The Rebel PT”), I went to that event to watch from the sidelines and help with coverage.
While endlessly frustrating at the time, that string of Top 8 losses in PTQs (along with a few decent performances in Grand Prix) led to my rating being high enough to qualify me for Worlds in Belgium that summer. To say I was excited would be an understatement. I'd never played in Worlds before, and the only time I'd ever been to Europe was the previous summer when I'd gone to perform in a show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival with my high school theatre department.
The formats for the event were Standard, Masques Block Draft, and Masques Block Constructed. Preparing for the tournament was a challenge, particularly the Limited portion, since I didn't have anyone local to play with. I joined up with a big test group including Ben Rubin, William “Huey” Jensen, Mike Bregoli, the OMS brothers, and none other than Jon Finkel, but my ability to actually play games against any of them was limited to using Apprentice, a simulation program much like Magic Workstation. I worked quite a bit with DanOMS to develop the Tinker deck we ended up playing in Standard, which stands out as one of the best decks I've ever played in a tournament and led to Jon and Bob squaring off in the finals in a mirror match. My preparation for the other two formats left a lot to be desired, though, and I ended up with a mediocre 12-6 finish after going 4-2 every day, good enough for Top 64 but not good enough to get me onto the train.
My favorite part of that tournament, though, had nothing to do with my own performance. It came from watching the team competition, in which the United States was represented by Jon Finkel, Chris Benafel, Frank Hernandez, and now-director-of-R&D Aaron Forsythe. The best moment was in the finals against Canada, where Jon was facing Ryan Fuller playing Stompy, a popular mono-green aggressive deck. The two had been very talkative all match, playfully trash talking each other back and forth. In the deciding game, Ryan had gotten off to a very fast start, and on his own turn Jon was sitting deep in thought.
“Not so talkative now, eh, Jon?” Fuller prodded.
To which Finkel responded, “I'm just figuring out how I want to kill you.”
Jon went on to make Magic history that year by being the only player to win Nationals, Worlds, and Team Worlds in a single year, a feat that has never been equaled and, with the elimination of Worlds and the team competition, never will.
Worlds in 2001 was a very different experience for me than Worlds in 2000. While I had narrowly qualified for the previous year's World Championships on rating, by 2001 I was playing on the Pro Tour all the time. In the fall of 2000, I'd made my first PT Top 8 in Chicago with my “Red Zone” deck, which cemented me in the minds of Magic fans everywhere as the guy who Armadillo Cloaked a Rith in the Pro Tour—and won. I'd let my limited success go to my head, however, and hadn't devoted as much time and effort to tournament preparation as I needed to. Decks of my design had done well, but not in my own hands, a fact that caused me no end of frustration.
Worlds in Toronto that year did turn things around for me. I had brewed up what I thought was a sweet deck for the Standard portion, a mono-red deck featuring such hits as Pyric Salamander and Blood Oath, but I began the tournament an abysmal 2-4. In all fairness to me, I lost to some completely absurd situations, such as a Rebels opponent searching out Thermal Glider to go with his Worship, a mono-red opponent who managed to draw enough lands to Obliterate me twice before I could burn him out, and a Fires player who actually blew up my Rishadan Port with Teferi's Response.
Thanks to that start and a slightly-but-not-much-better draft day, I was basically out of contention for anything on day three, so I decided to just have some fun with things. The format was Extended, and I played the relatively common “Secret Force,” a deck built around ramping into Natural Order to fetch Verdant Force—powerful creatures to cheat into play have come a long way since then! My twist on the deck was that I included a few dual lands to support white and red, and I included Rith, the Awakener as a Natural Order target in my deck, along with Armadillo Cloak in my sideboard. I actually won a match against Mono-Red in which I Natural Ordered for Verdant Force and then Cloaked it. I don't think he was nearly as amused as I was, but sometimes you've got to play to the crowd…
After my performance at Worlds in 2001, I was in danger of falling off the train. I just hadn't put up any results to follow up my third-place finish at Chicago, and I could only claim I was getting unlucky for so long. Early in the 2002 season, I took a long, hard look at my tournament preparation and habits and decided I needed to make a change. I redoubled my testing and started taking Grand Prix more seriously, which led to a Top 16 finish at PT New Orleans, followed by three straight Grand Prix Top 8s leading up to Worlds.
2002 was the year of the “Magic Colony,” which involved a big group of players all living in a house for about a month leading up to PT Osaka. The idea was that it would be both a great way for them to test and a great way to generate content for Sideboard, the predecessor to MagicTheGathering.com, but in reality it turned out that having a bunch of young gamers under the same roof leads more to ridiculous antics than productive testing or article writing. I was working with the group in the colony, though I couldn't be there myself due to commitments at school. One of the residents of the house, Ken Ho, went on to win the Pro Tour, but the rest of the team played a different deck and did very poorly; I think that deck goes down as the worst deck I've ever played at a Pro Tour, in fact. It included all three of Violent Eruption, Haunting Echoes, and Aboshan, Cephalid Emperor—in a format with some of the worst mana fixing in Magic history. Oops.
Despite the Magic Colony's failure, a handful of us decided to do something of a “mini-colony” for Worlds. Ben Rubin, Brian Hegstad, and myself stayed at Eric Froehlich's place just outside Washington, DC for the month leading up to Worlds in Australia. The most popular Standard decks at the time were various flavors of Psychatog, and we brewed up a powerful G/R/W Living Wish deck packed to the brim with cards that gave Tog fits, like Anurid Brushhopper, Phantom Centaur, and Glory (which is available as one of the collector's edition decks from that event!). We all started the tournament off in great shape, posting something like a 12-3 record among the five of us playing the deck by the time the Sideboard coverage people interviewed me about it, but after I'd talked about how good the deck was in print, we all came crashing back down to earth, ending barely above .500 for the day.
After a strong draft day though, I was still in contention for Top 8, and I started off day three 4-0 in Odyssey Block Constructed with mono-black control before running into Carlos Romao playing U/G Threshold. I made a critical mistake in that match that lost me a game that I almost certainly would have won, and I ultimately ended up missing Top 8 while Carlos went on to become World Champion. Coming out of that tournament, I wrote this article, which I still think holds some important thoughts for anyone looking to compete at the highest levels. If anything, Worlds in 2002 taught me that one of the most important things in Magic is to learn how to handle losing because you're going to do a lot of it, and sometimes it's your fault.
Worlds in 2003 was a pretty unremarkable event for me performance-wise, but in retrospect it highlights one of the most important elements of being successful at Magic tournaments—staying healthy. I didn't give myself any chance to adjust to the time change traveling to Worlds that year, and I ended up being unable to sleep, got terribly sick, and did not play well throughout the entire event. Interestingly, this would be a recurring theme for me at World Championship events in Europe even many years later.
I do wish the recordings of the Top 8 coverage from that Worlds was still available, though, because I think the finals match was one of my favorite moments doing commentary. Not because the match itself was exciting or interesting, or even that my commentary was particularly good—far from it, the day had been so long at that point thanks to the many Mirari's Wake control decks that I was just rooting for it to end. Daniel Zink had Anurid Brushhoppers in his sideboard, which were pretty much the only hope of the match ending quickly, and I was literally chanting “HOPPER HOPPER HOPPER HOPPER” and cheering for him to draw it. You try commenting on control mirrors for hours and hours on end, okay?
Worlds in 2004 was at the same venue as it is this year—Fort Mason Center in San Francisco. The last time I was here, I was much less dedicated to doing well. Worlds in 2004 was really when I was on my way out of Magic. I'd just won the VS System Pro Circuit a few weeks before, and despite (or perhaps in part because of) making the finals of GP New Jersey right afterwards, I didn't really have much fire to play Magic. I played a pretty bad deck in Standard and performed as badly as I deserved.
Most of what was notable for me about Worlds weekend that year was outside the event itself. I was staying with Jon Finkel, and that was around the time David Kushner was doing research for his upcoming book “Jonny Magic and the Card Shark Kids.” That meant David was hanging around us all the time, both at the tournament site and when we went out for dinner, etc. And I didn't get even a single mention in the book!
On top of bringing his writer pal around everywhere, Jon had said he was going to go with me to a party on Saturday night where I was supposed to meet up with a girl I'd been talking to for a while. I ended up taking a cab to Oakland by myself to this party that was thrown in what looked to be an abandoned warehouse. I didn't end up actually finding my friend there, but I did meet some people who were kind enough to give me a ride back to San Fran after the party was over—which was barely in time for me to get back and do commentary for the Top 8. If anyone stopped by the broadcast booth that morning, they would have thought I was the poster boy for Red Bull…
And we've made it to the modern era! My break from Magic pretty much spanned from after Worlds in 2004 until PT Hollywood 2008, when I started playing in PTQs again. After making Top 8 in Honolulu at my first PT back, I was hoping just to get enough points in Austin so I could qualify for Worlds in Rome, and then I went and won the whole thing. I was kind of on top of the world. I even made Top 8 at GP Minneapolis the weekend right before Worlds, which certainly had me in the winning mindset.
Unfortunately, even a winning mindset can't beat out a jet lag, at least in my case. One thing I've learned from all of my travels for Magic is that my brain does not operate well unless I give it a chance to adjust to time changes. I just played terribly in Rome, throwing away multiple matches that I certainly could have won on simple mental lapses. I actually had a game in which I passed the turn without playing a land, which would have let me cast Arrow Volley Trap, and then died to my opponent's attacking Hellkite Charger—which was already in play. In retrospect, I could point to ways in which I threw away at least one game in every match I lost. I even illegally played a Kird Ape on turn one off of a non-red producing land in one game and allowed an opponent to illegally Ardent Plea without the appropriate mana in another. I resolved to give myself sufficient time to adjust to the time zone change at every foreign Pro Tour I attended in the future. If I'm going to bother to go, I might as well do it right—and it turns out I would do just that in Amsterdam the following year…
Worlds in 2010 is bittersweet for me to remember. It was the event at which I was inducted into the Pro Tour Hall of Fame, which was certainly an awesome experience. And the first two days of the tournament were pretty awesome, as well, as I started 6-0 on day one with the newly unveiled Caw-Go deck and won my first draft pod to leave me as the last undefeated in the tournament. Even a 1-2 stumble in my second draft left me near the head of the pack, and I only needed a 3-3 record on Sunday in Extended to become the first player to make Top 8 on the weekend of their Hall of Fame induction.
It was not to be, however, as I threw away match after match. Having spent virtually all of my time testing Standard, I didn't really know what to play in Modern and just went with the deck that the rest of the team liked, a five-color control build with Cruel Ultimatum. My inexperience with the deck along with the concentration of control decks at the top of the field led to me playing under extreme time pressure throughout the day, and that is not a situation in which I perform well. I ended the day with a total of zero wins, five losses, and a draw—an absolutely abysmal record that not only left me outside the Top 8, but outside the money entirely. I decided never to leave myself in that position again. I can promise you; I've had a Modern deck that I'm comfortable with for quite a while now…
We shall see…
Until next time,