In the fall of 1995, I woke up and got ready to head to what I thought would be another run-of-the-mill day of seventh grade. Little did I know that this day would begin a chain of events that would introduce me to the game that would dramatically change my life for the better. I arrived at homeroom, and after morning announcements my teacher handed out pamphlets for a unique summer camp. Lots of the activities listed were things that were very appealing to me. They had chess, something called "fantasy adventures," and magic. (This was literally magic, where you learned how to do magic tricks, unrelated to Magic: The Gathering). I went home from school that day and gave the information to my mother. She agreed that it seemed like a good fit for me and put the wheels in motion.
I finished out seventh grade, and the time came to go to summer camp. I remember arriving on the first day and heading to the meeting area to find tables full of kids playing some card game that I'd never seen before. I walked over and watched a couple of them playing. I had literally no idea what was going on. I asked someone for an explanation, and he gave me my first (very rough) introduction to the rules of Magic: The Gathering. Throughout the rest of the first day whenever there was downtime, there were always a ton of kids playing Magic. I watched and tried to learn as much as I could. When the day came to an end and my mom picked me up, I of course wanted to go to the store and by some Magic cards. I got a couple of Fourth Edition Starter Decks and took them over to my friend's house to play.
Obviously, as 13-year-old boys, we didn't bother reading the rules. I knew everything I needed to from watching a few games at camp that day. The games were usually decided by my Shivan Dragon or by him casting Desert Twister on me. (Destroy any target permanently—what was I supposed to do?) Eventually, after deciding that this card was simply too good, we decided to make our own errata of sorts and only allow Desert Twister to be used to kill cards that are in play.
As the weeks of camp went by, I learned more and more about cards, decks, and rules. Desert Twister was no longer a card with the text "win the game" and due to the frequency of being asked "what color do you play?" I figured I should pick one. At some point I had managed to acquire a Royal Assassin and a Nightmare, and they were by far my favorite cards, so I chose black. I managed to make some trades for some more Nightmares, a few Sengir Vampires, Hypnotic Specters, and some Black Knights, and my deck was really coming together. Easily my favorite thing at the time was turn 1 Dark Ritual, Hypnotic Specter or double Dark Ritual and Sengir Vampire. How was anyone supposed to beat a turn 1 4/4 flier?
Camp came to an end and so did my outlet for playing Magic. At this point, that was all I really wanted to do. I had to find somewhere else to play. Next time I went to one of the stores I bought packs at, I asked the person working the counter if he knew of a place to play. He told me about another store that had tournaments every Saturday. I was excited. The next weekend I went to one of these tournaments. Naturally, I expected to win it. All I needed was a few turn 1 Sengir Vampires, and there would be nothing anyone could do.
I remember playing my first round, which was against an older kid maybe seventeen or eighteen. He had cards that I'd heard of but never actually seen. I don't remember too many details of the match, but I remember a few. I remember he had a real problem beating Xenic Poltergeist because it was able to tap to kill his Moxen. I also remember in one of the games I was able to assemble a Xenic Poltergeist, Icy Manipulator, and Royal Assassin combo and destroy his Ivory Tower. I remember him getting very upset when I won.
In round 2, I had to play against Rob. I had heard buzz around the store that Rob was the guy to beat. Well, I was in luck because my hand was unbeatable; first turn two Dark Rituals and a Sengir Vampire. I remember Rob giving a little shrug and taking his turn. He played Tundra and tapped it to cast Swords to Plowshares on my Sengir Vampire.
What was this card?
Nobody at camp played with it. I read it. Ok, my Sengir Vampire is gone, but I'm at 24 life. Good luck beating me now. I was puzzled as to why someone would play with a card with such a major drawback. Especially the "guy to beat." I don't remember many other details of that match or tournament. But I remember getting Millstoned to death two games in a row, I remember that Swords to Plowshares, and I remember him doing a lot of things at the "end of your turn." I also remember that moment because it was the moment that I realized both that I had a lot to learn and that I really wanted to learn it.
Over the next several months I continued to regularly attend that Saturday tournament as well as some weeknight tournaments here and there. I played my black deck for a while, with some occasional success. One thing I was always careful to do was to watch as many of Rob's games as I could. Over time I began to construct my own U/W Millstone deck. I didn't really have access to the full complement of power cards like he did. But by trading and using store credit that I'd built up from prizes, I managed to get just about everything.
Right about the time I managed to complete the deck, the store announced it was closing its doors. I was obviously very unhappy since I looked forward to going there to play every Saturday. I would have to find a new place to play. For a while, I just played in random weeknight tournaments, although they were generally "Type 2." (Now known as Standard.) I wasn't able to use my power cards, but I was still able to play U/W Control decks based around cards like Ivory Gargoyle and Kjeldoran Outpost. At this point, I started to do really well in these tournaments, commonly winning or coming close.
On weekends occasionally there were big tournaments known as "thousand-dollar tournaments" in downtown Boston. The level of competition at these events was very high. These tournaments were where I first met players like Brian Kibler, David Humphreys, Darwin Kastle, Tom Guevin, and Steven O'Mahoney Schwartz. I remember my first match against Steve. It was Mirage/Visions Sealed Deck. I had a Viashino Warrior and a Searing Spear Askari in play, and I played a Snake Basket. On the following turn, I cast a Dark Ritual and made something like eight or nine Snake tokens.
I felt good about my chances, as all Steve had in play was a Maro. Even though it was a 5/5 or something, I thought I'd be able to run him over with my horde of creatures. I still remember vividly as Steve untapped, tapped four mana, and played Savage Twister for two. Steve went on to easily win the game and the match. But I learned a valuable lesson that day about not overextending.
When there were no thousand-dollar tournaments, I started becoming exposed to the PTQ scene. At first, I always played in the junior division. I was able to attend Pro Tour New York in 1998. Unfortunately, I didn't qualify, so I was there as a spectator. I still had a great time and remember watching a lot of the Top 8 matches. Jon Finkel ended up winning the Pro Tour, and around this time is when the local greats who I respected started mentioning him as potentially the best player in the world.
Soon a store not far from where I lived, TJ's Collectibles, began to have an Extended tournament every Saturday. I was really happy to have finally found a new stomping ground, which TJ's would be for me for many years. I started going every single weekend. At this point, I was really coming into my own as a Magic player and started winning this tournament almost every week. Due to the fact that I had done so well in these Extended tournaments, I had a really good constructed rating. In the fall of 1998, I competed in my first major Magic tournament, Grand Prix Boston.
There were a few well-known decks for me to choose from, and I opted to play a U/G deck based on Tradewind Rider and Awakening. I actually did reasonably well in the event. I finished in the Top 32, but if I recall correctly, that didn't award any prizes at the time. I was still happy with that result. But the thing I remember most about my first major Magic tournament was that in round 6 with a record of 5-0 I got paired against Jon Finkel. I remember checking the pairings and checking my opponents name. I was truly thrilled to get a chance to play against the guy who was considered to be the best player in the world.
I remember Jon played a turn 1 Survival of the Fittest with a Mox Diamond and completely decimated me. I never felt like I was in either of the games. I lost, walked over to my friends, and was literally bursting with excitement that I had the opportunity to play Jon. I was high fiving all my friends, and I appeared so happy that one of them said, "Wait, did you win?" to which I replied, "Of course not." That is the only time I can remember not caring that I had lost a match of competitive Magic. Jon went on to go undefeated for the duration of the tournament, including a finals win over Randy Buehler. I really enjoyed that event and wanted to find a way to play in more tournaments of that level.
Because I did well at Grand Prix Boston and continued to do exceptionally well at the Saturday Extended tournaments, I qualified for Pro Tour Rome on rating a couple months later. I begged and pleaded with my mom until finally somehow I convinced her to let me go. The condition was that she come with me, but that was totally fine with me, as long as I was able to go. I played a deck that was designed by David Humphreys. It was a Great Whale / Recurring Nightmare combo deck that got infinite mana and then used various different methods to kill the opponent. It was possible to recur Triskelion an infinite number of times or sometimes even use a Mishra's Factory to pump itself over and over as you were recurring the Great Whale.
This deck was good in the metagame of lots of Tolarian Academy and High Tide combo decks because it had access to a fair amount of permission spells as well as Duress. I ended up going 3-3-1, including a draw on time with Shawn "Hammer" Regnier, the winner of the second Pro Tour, who I knew from the New England Magic scene.
My favorite story of the tournament, which I love to tell, is from my match against Janosch Kuhn. He was a decently well-known Pro Tour regular, and I was just some kid in his first Pro Tour. He was playing a Tolarian Academy deck. He was going off, and it was obvious I had nothing to interact, as he was drawing countless cards and I wasn't responding at all. At some point, he had played Mind Over Matter and was using it to untap Ancient Tomb and use it for mana repeatedly. (Keep in mind the rules were different at the time. If a player was at zero life, he or she did not lose the game unless there was a change in phase. So theoretically you could be at -100 life, Stroke of Genius your opponent for 55 and win the game by decking.) I think we were 3-1-1 at the time, so I really wanted to win this game and match to assure myself a day 2 finish.
I remember sitting there thinking to myself, "How can I win this game?" So then I tried something. As he was casting some more artifacts, I simply tapped all my lands and said, "I'll get five blue." I remember the look on his face. He was very puzzled. "So you have five blue in your pool?" "Yep, five blue." He went on to spend the rest of his mana on various spells and artifacts. At that point, he said, "Declare my attack," to which I naturally replied, "Ok, you're at -6 life, you lose" He just grinned at me, realizing what had happened, nodded, and picked up his cards. I felt like a genius. Unfortunately, I ended up losing the match in three games, but I will never forget that game.
So I headed home from Rome knowing one thing: I had to play in more Pro Tours. I started to look much more actively for PTQs. About two months after Pro Tour Rome, I went to my friend Mark's house to spend the night with the intent to head to a PTQ the next morning—a qualifier for Pro Tour Los Angeles on the Queen Mary. I woke up in the morning for the PTQ, and I was sick. I don't mean I had a little cough either. I had a bad case of the flu. I ached all over, had a fever, and was exhausted. Naturally, this wasn't going to stop me from playing a Magic tournament.
So off we headed to the PTQ. It was an Urza's Saga Sealed Deck PTQ with a Draft Top 8. I don't really remember much about the Swiss rounds of the tournament. What I do remember was that outside the room was a lobby type area with a couch. I was so sick that after every round I would go lay down on the couch and either sleep or just lay there until Mark came and told me pairings were up for the next round. Mark started joking about it and calling it "Jordan tech" in reference to Michael Jordan's famous "Flu Game."
I ended up making Top 8 and was on to the draft. I ended up with a solid B/W deck featuring a Mishra's Helix. I actually hadn't had the opportunity to play with Mishra's Helix before, and I remember I almost didn't take it. Thankfully I did, as it ended up winning me multiple games en route to the finals. In the finals, I was up against Shawn "Hammer" Regnier. I knew from experience that Hammer was a great player, and this would not be an easy match. He was also playing a B/W deck. I ended up winning in two games, one thanks to Mishra's Helix. I took my envelope and mustered all the strength I had left to walk to the car and collapse into the passenger's seat. I was too sick to even feel happy yet. I woke up the next morning, and while I still felt badly, the worst of it was over. At this point, it started to set in that I was going back to the Pro Tour, and I was ecstatic.
Pro Tour Los Angeles wasn't for a couple months. A couple weeks later there was another PTQ, this time for Pro Tour New York. The format was Extended, and I had gotten a decklist for a mono-blue "draw-go" deck from Erik Lauer. The deck to beat in the metagame at the time was High Tide combo. I felt good about the deck choice, and the tournament went great. I easily advanced to the Top 8 and won my first two rounds there.
The finals, however, would be no easy match. I had to play against a now Hall of Famer in David Humphreys. Dave, in my estimation, is one of the best and most underrated Magic players of all time (even though he's in the Hall of Fame). He was always known as one of the best in the Boston area, and in my mind, he was the best. I think every time I've had a discussion with someone about the greatest Magic players of all time I've brought up David Humphreys.
Anyways, Dave was playing his patented Great Whale / Recurring Nightmare deck. I knew this would be a more difficult matchup for me than all the High Tide decks because Dave had access to significantly more permission spells and also Duress. I remember playing one of the sideboarded games in which I had played an Arcane Laboratory. Dave and I played a really complex game where I had Forbid and Whispers of the Muse. Dave had to cast exactly the right threats every turn to prevent me from Whispering with buyback at the end of his turn.
I had to let exactly enough threats resolve and deal with them in other ways in order to keep my hand stocked enough that I could Forbid with Buyback when necessary. I remember feeling the key point in the game was when Dave hard cast a Great Whale and I chose to let it resolve, intending to trade a Mishra's Factory and two Quicksands for it the following turn. I went on to win the game and the match, and now I had stockpiled two Pro Tour invites!
The next day I headed to some tournament at Your Move Games. I don't remember the tournament format or anything about it. But I do remember walking in to the store. I remember Tom Guevin, who was a real character, sitting at a table a few chairs down from Dave. When I walked in, Tom looked up at me and said, "Billy, Dave said your deck was crap." I sort of expected something like this from Tom. I shrugged and looked over at Dave, who said, "That's not what I said, Tom. I said I lost to the player, not the deck." I will always remember that moment, as it was then that I knew I had gained the respect of David Humphreys, one of the Magic players who I respected the most.
Pro Tour Los Angeles did not go well for me at all. I don't remember my exact record, but I know I put up a terrible performance. Pro Tour New York went better, as I finished well enough to qualify for the World Championships in Yokohama, Japan. I was having a very respectable tournament. Going into the last round, it was clear I'd be able to make Top 32, qualifying me for the next Pro Tour in London, if I managed a win. Of course, nothing on the Pro Tour is ever easy, and I was paired against one of the best in the game and now Hall of Famer Dirk Baberowski. The format was Extended. I was playing a High Tide / Yawgmoth's Will deck, and Dirk was playing a Mono-Black Necropotence deck.
In game 3, Dirk was applying pressure with a Steel Golem. He also had a Tormod's Crypt and a Wasteland in play. I had only two Islands. I was going to need to win on my following turn, and it was not going to be easy. It was going to be difficult to get black mana because of the Wasteland (all my black sources were Underground Seas aside from one Swamp to get with Thawing Glaciers, which I did not have). It was going to be hard to cast Yawgmoth's Will because of the Tormod's Crypt.
I led off my turn by tapping an Island to play High Tide. I tapped my other Island to play another High Tide. Then I played Underground Sea and tapped it for two blue and one black. I used all three of my blue to cast Frantic Search, to which Dirk naturally responded by Wastelanding my Underground Sea. I was going to have these two double High Tided Islands to win this game, and that was going to be it. I also couldn't spend my black mana until I was in a position to cast Yawgmoth's Will.
I used one of my Islands to cast Meditate and used the other to play another Frantic Search, untapping both. I then played yet another High Tide followed by a Turnabout targeting Dirk. He knew what I was doing and used his Tormod's Crypt to exile my graveyard. It didn't matter at this point, as I had found everything I needed. I went on to cast another Frantic Search or two, another Mediate or two, and Yawgmoth's Will, winning the game. Dirk was extremely gracious in defeat in our match, and told me he was very happy for me that I had qualified for Pro Tour London. Dirk and I remain friends to this day.
After my Top 32 finish at Worlds, I headed home, excited that I had managed to qualify for Pro Tour London. This was my next tournament, and it was going to be Urza's Saga/Urza's Legacy/Urza's Destiny Booster Draft. This is one of my favorite limited formats of all time. I practiced a lot for this tournament and felt very confident and prepared as I headed off to London. I ended up making the Top 8 and played in the first round against Kyle Rose. Kyle Rose was a phenomenal Magic player, amassing four Pro Tour Top 8s, with a win, as well as a US Nationals win during the time it was considered to be as difficult as a Pro Tour. I personally feel that Kyle really never got his due when it comes to being recognized as one of Magic's great players.
A funny story that will show you how far the Internet has come over the years: I heard years after this Top 8 that The Dojo, which was the largest and possibly only Magic website at the time, had actually posted the contents of all the Top 8 packs the night before the draft. I don't think anyone knew about it before the draft, as I had multiple friends also in Top 8 and they certainly didn't know, but can you imagine if something like that happened now? Anyway, the draft ended up going horribly for me, and I lost to Kyle in three straight games. I left London embarrassed by my draft and not proud of my accomplishment like I should have. The good thing was that the Top 8 finish would keep me qualified for an extended period of time. I was now "on the train."
A few weeks later I had my first major Grand Prix success. I flew to San Diego for a Mercadian Masques Limited Grand Prix. I ended up really steamrolling this tournament, losing I think only one match en route to victory. I really felt like I had something to prove after embarrassing myself in London and needed that win to get my confidence back. The funniest part of this tournament was probably the fact that I beat now good friend David Williams in three matches on Sunday. We were paired in both of the day 2 drafts and the Top 8 draft. We joke about it to this day.
My next major success occurred at the end of 2000 in the Masters Tournament at Pro Tour New York. For those who don't know, the Masters were a series of 32-man, invitation-only, single-elimination tournaments with enormous prize pools. Each round was for incredibly high stakes. The inaugural one took place at Pro Tour New York 2000. The format was Extended, and due to the success I'd had over the previous year, I received an invite. Preparing for this event, I practiced with good friend and now Hall of Famer Ben Rubin, and we both ended up playing a U/G Survival of the Fittest / Tradewind Rider Control deck. In the five rounds of that tournament, I defeated three people who would one day be in the Hall of Fame. (Herzog, O. Ruel, and Maher)
In the finals, I was paired against Jason Zila, who was playing a U/W Control deck. Everyone thought I had a horrible matchup, myself included. In three very long and intense games, using multiple copies of Back to Basics, I was able to overcome the odds and become the first Masters Series Champion, defeating Jason Zila 2-1. This event was covered by ESPN and broadcast on ESPN2. I was interviewed for the ESPN show, and the whole experience was really surreal.
The next couple years of the Pro Tour went well for me. Frankly, though, I was disappointed. I did manage to finish in the Top 16 once, the Top 32 four times, and the Top 64 three times as well as have some reasonable Grand Prix success. All I wanted to do was get back on the Sunday stage and redeem myself for my poor performance in the Top 8 of London, and I continued to come up a little short. Lots of good things did happen in those two years though. I built a lot of incredible friendships with tremendous people, most of which persist to this day. I earned the respect of a lot of my peers as a Magic player. I really feel I grew a tremendous amount during this period. At the end of 2002, I felt like a more mature, secure, and confident person. But I still felt like I had something to prove.
A major thing happened in the world of Magic in mid-to-late 2002, and that was the release of Magic: The Gathering Online. Magic Online was one of the most convenient things that ever happened to Magic. It made all facets of practicing easier. You were able to do drafts anytime you wanted from the comfort of your own home. You were also easier able to practice for Constructed events with a clean and useful interface, unlike the third-party programs that existed at the time.
When Magic Online was released, I couldn't get enough of it. It was also helped by the fact that at the time Magic Online had the capability to do team drafts. I didn't do anything but play Magic, online or otherwise, for several months. Some days I would wake up, get on the computer, and play until I went to bed. Not only was I enjoying it but my game was as sharp as it ever was, and it was about to show.
The first Pro Tour of 2003 was in Chicago. The format was Onslaught Rochester Draft. I was very well practiced in Onslaught Draft and felt I had a very good chance to do well. I had a great day 1, going 6-1 and putting myself in what I felt was a very good position to make a run at Top 8. There are two people in my eyes in the history of Magic who really established themselves as far and ahead above the rest of us in terms of skill and dominance. The first is Jon Finkel, and the second, of course, is the German Juggernaut, Kai Budde. In the last round of Swiss, I only needed a draw to advance to the Top 8. My opponent was Kai Budde. We agreed to the intentional draw, guaranteeing us both Top 8, and waited for the end of the round to hear the Top 8 announcement. I was overjoyed that I was finally going to have a chance to redeem myself.
The Top 8 was completely stacked: Kai Budde, Nicolai Herzog, Jon Finkel, Dustin Stern, Eugene Harvey, Fabio Reinhardt, Bram Snepvangers, and myself. Unfortunately, I realized as the standings were announced that my opponent in the first round of Top 8 was going to be none other than Kai Budde. Kai had already won a staggering six Pro Tours. The only other player who had won three Pro Tours at that time was Dirk Baberowski, and two of Dirk's victories had come in Team Pro Tours as a member of Kai's team, The Phoenix Foundation. Six Pro Tour wins is just a staggering number. I knew what I was up against, but I also understood that I was a good player. I didn't presume to make myself a favorite in my match against Kai, but I definitely thought I had a fighting chance.
I walked back to my hotel room alone that night anxious to get some sleep. As I was walking through a hallway in one direction, Kai was walking in the other. I remember Kai stopping and asking me if I wanted to do a small split where the winner of our match would give something to the loser. Naturally, I accepted. Honestly, I remember feeling honored that Kai had enough respect for me as a player to even make the offer.
I arrived the next morning anxious to draft. I remember t draft went decently. My draft, however, was not the issue. Kai's deck was absolutely amazing. I had to watch dejectedly as Kai was passed a tremendous R/B deck. This was very uncommon in Onslaught. The removal was so important that usually every player had to play one of the two colors. Kai's deck was unstoppable. It featured two Cabal Archons, Rotlung Reanimator, and three or four premium black and red removal cards. To make matters worse, my deck had a lot of Clerics in it, which would trigger Kai's Rotlung Reanimator whenever they died. Even worse than that was that Kai had two copies of Misery Charm, which was a one-mana Dark Banishing versus my Clerics and could even be used to return his Rotlung Reanimator if I was able to get it off the board somehow.
I managed to win game 1 and liked my chances to defy the odds, but it just wasn't meant to be. I didn't feel embarrassed this time. I drafted well, I played well, but I was beaten by the best. I was proud of myself, and I really felt like I would be back for another shot at it.
The next Pro Tour took place in Venice, Italy. The format was Onslaught Block Constructed. I decided to play a W/G Control deck designed by Brian Kibler and Eric Froehlich. The tournament didn't start out all that great for me. I was 4-2 going into round 7. I didn't always like to draw into day 2, as it made it more difficult to make Top 8 and that was really my goal at this point. However, my situation at the time was that I needed one more than the minimum number of Pro Points to qualify me for the next Masters Series tournament. So I decided to offer my opponent the draw, he accepted, and I headed into day 2 at 4-2-1.
Day 2 was a completely different story. I won six consecutive matches and was able to draw with now Hall of Famer Darwin Kastle in the final round of Swiss. I waited for the Top 8 seeding to be announced, and again I had the matchup I least wanted to play. My first round of the Top 8 was going to be against very close friend Gabriel Nassif. Gab is one of the most successful players in Magic's history and even at that time was considered one of the best. I thought I was advantaged in the matchup versus his Goblin deck, but I would have really just preferred to play someone else because he and I were so close. I played well in our match, and he got some unfortunate draws. He was very upset and took the loss very hard. I think this is the only time I remember in my career where I genuinely felt bad about beating someone in a match of Magic.
In the Top 4, I was paired against Osyp Lebedowicz. He was playing a R/W Astral Slide / Lightning Rift deck. We traded games and were tied two games each heading into game 5. Game 5 went pretty long. I managed to gain some life due to an Exalted Angel before he was able to remove it, and towards the end of the game, I was at something like 28 life, while Osyp was at five. I had seven lands in play. My hand contained Akroma, Angel of Wrath as well as Oblation and maybe another card or two that I currently don't remember. Osyp tapped out to play his own Akroma on his turn and attack for six. (The legend rule was different at this time. If one player had a legendary permanent in play, the other simply wasn't allowed to cast one.)
I was faced with a decision. I could cast Oblation on his Akroma, untap, and try to draw a land to advance to my first Pro Tour finals, or I could take a hit or more, wait until I draw a land, and try to cast the Oblation then. I opted to go for the former, while a lot of people felt I gave the game away by not choosing the latter. The one thing which I feel spectators failed to take properly into account was that Osyp had four copies of Akroma's Blessing in his deck. If I were to let Osyp untap and he had a copy of Akroma's Blessing in hand or drew one, the game would become almost unwinnable for me unless I were to topdeck an Akroma's Vengeance and he didn't have another Akroma.
I failed to draw a land, and Osyp later told me he had drawn both of his Akromas off the Oblation. He played one on the following turn. I actually drew Akroma's Vengeance on my turn and was able to wrath it away, but he played another one that went the distance. People ask me about that play to this day, and I still believe I made the correct play. I was very proud of myself again and very happy with how I played the tournament. I was also very anxious to attempt to make it three Top 8s in a row.
It wasn't meant to be. The next Pro Tour was in Yokohama, and I had a poor performance, failing to reach day 2. I was overall still very happy with how things were going. The next tournament was the World Championship in Berlin. After two days, I was out of Top 8 contention, and I didn't have a ton of incentive to put up a finish in the Top 32 or 64 range. I decided to have some fun and brewed up a Battle of Wits deck for Extended on day 3. Battle of Wits had always been a personal favorite of mine since I had gone on a run with it at Grand Prix Milwaukee in 2002. Albeit, that tournament was Standard, and this one was Extended. I didn't do well with it in Extended, finishing 2-4. I did, however, succeed in my goal for the day, which was to have a lot of fun.
The next Pro Tour was one that I really looked forward to. It was a Team Pro Tour in my hometown of Boston. The format was Onslaught Block Limited. Day 1 was Sealed Deck, and day 2 was Rochester Draft. My teammates were my closest friends Matt Linde and Brock Parker. We got our pools and constructed our decks. They were decent, nothing special. Day 1 didn't go particularly well, but we made day 2 with a record of 4-2.
Day 2 was my favorite format of all time and the format that I believe I was the best at. For some reason, I always had a real knack for Team Rochester Draft. I loved it. I feel I was able to do a tremendous job of understanding how matchups were going to play out. I was also able to think very quickly during the draft portion about how to get cards where I wanted them, which cards opponents would take for which decks, and which cards I'd be able to allow to bounce back to us and end up in our decks. For these reasons, I was in the "pilot's seat" for day 2 and mostly in charge of running the drafts. Day 2 went great, and we ran the table to a perfect 5-0 record, which is just what we needed to make it to the Top 4 on Sunday.
In my third Top 8 in a calendar year, once again I had the matchup I least wanted. Again, I would be playing against Kai Budde on Sunday. He, along with his teammates Dirk Baberowski and Marco Blume, had won everything. With two Team Pro Tour wins at this point along with a Team Masters Series win, they were undoubtedly the best team in the world.
Matt was paired against Dirk and Brock would have to play Marco. I would get my chance for redemption against Kai. Matt, Brock, and I went back to our hotel to get some rest and get ready for the next day. Back at the hotel, Matt was being his usual pessimistic self. This really started to get on my nerves. At some point, he said something to the effect of "at least we made it this far." I snapped at him a little bit and shouted, "Look, I don't want to hear it. I'm going to win tomorrow; one of you just win." I mean no disrespect to the other two teams, but I think both teams felt like our match was really the finals of the Pro Tour.
The next morning we went to Dunkin' Donuts for some breakfast and headed over to the site. We had a box of donuts with us and went to take our seats at the draft table. There was a very funny exchange in which Marco declared that if we had some Boston Cream doughnuts in the box, he would gladly concede the match and go about his day. The six of us joked about it for a little while, and then it was down to business. They elected to open the first pack, which was fine with me, as I always preferred to receive. I'm not sure how much it really mattered, but I always felt was advantageous to know some of your opponents' first picks before you had to make yours. The thing that sticks most in my mind about the draft is when I had a chance to select this lil guy:
I remember getting visibly excited that I was going to be able to select it. My teammates looked at me with puzzled expressions. After the draft when we were constructing our decks, they both asked why I had been so happy about this seemingly meaningless Buzzard. Well, I knew Kai had a lot of three-toughness creatures in his deck. I also knew this Buzzard was going to be very powerful in combination with the Infest I had already drafted. "Whatever," they shrugged, and we went about constructing our decks.
In game 1 against Kai, I remember there was a board with a reasonable amount of creatures. He tapped out to play Anurid Murkdiver. I had a bunch of creatures as well, two of which were a Death's-Head Buzzard and a Goblin Dynamo. On my turn, I was able to cast Infest, killing the Buzzard, which in turn killed all of Kai's creatures except for one four-toughness creature. I was able to finish that off with the Dynamo, play another creature, and go on to easily win the game. In game 2, I again won on the back of Infest, and I had done my part to advance to the finals.
At this point, both of the other two matches were tied at one game apiece. The rules back then were a little different. You were not allowed to communicate at all with your teammates during the matches except to let them know results of other games. For coverage purposes, the game 3s would play one at a time, with Matt being the first. I really thought we needed this one because of the unpredictability of the match between Brock and Marco. Both of them were playing U/G decks with tons of Elves. Brock had a Wellwisher and an Ambush Commander, but Marco was capable of dealing infinite damage with Wirewood Channeler / Pemmin's Aura / Glintwing Invoker. Anything could happen.
I remember standing behind Matt watching every play of his third game against Dirk. I was so nervous I thought my heart was going to jump out of my chest. Matt was typically a very fast player, but he was definitely thinking things through and taking his time. He played the game great. I didn't disagree with any of his plays, and he went on to win the third game against Dirk, putting us in the finals. We were all ecstatic to be the team to finally dethrone the great Phoenix Foundation, but there was one round left.
The finals were against "Original Slackers" consisting of Lovre Crnobori, Jake Smith, and Ricard Osterberg. I played against Smith, Matt played against Osterberg, and Brock played against Crnobori. I don't remember a lot of details about the draft itself. I do remember walking away from the table feeling that my deck was a little worse than Jake's. I also remember thinking that both Brock's and Matt's decks were substantially better than Loyre's and Ricard's, respectively. I was playing a R/B deck, as was Jake.
The thing that stands out to me the most about the finals is at the start of game 2. I had won game 1, and Jake had chosen to play first. Jake started with a turn 1 Carrion Feeder. I had no play until turn 2, when I played a Skirk Drill Sergeant. On Jake's third turn, he made a play that likely cost him the game. He tapped his lands and played a Death's-Head Buzzard. He then sacrificed it to Carrion Feeder. Unfortunately, the timing didn't work as he had hoped, and he traded his two creatures for my one and also spent his third turn. I was able to follow it up with a turn 3 morph, which went unblocked on the following turn. It was a Haunted Cadaver. This stripped him of his hand, and the rest was academic.
Again, I was the first one done, and both of the other matches were tied at one game apiece. This time Brock got the first crack at winning the round. Matt and I could do nothing but watch on and hope as Brock played his third game against Loyre. I remember on the final turn that Brock sent in an army of morphs. I knew from the rail that there was nothing Loyre could do. I just had to hope Brock didn't do something silly, although I was confident that he would not. Loyre made his blocks, and Brock unmorphed his Titanic Bulvox. I immediately jumped in the air and gave Matt a bear hug as Brock and Loyre shook hands. We had won the Pro Tour! I was a Pro Tour Champion! Not only that but I had done it in my favorite format with my best friends. This was easily the happiest moment of my life to that point.
After our win, I started to grow a little tired of so much traveling. I played on the Pro Tour for about another year. Over the course of that year, lots of my friends who I really enjoyed spending time with stopping going to tournaments. My Pro Tour days were easily the happiest times of my life. I really grew up on the Pro Tour; we all did. Our youths were spent together in various places all over the world. Asia, Europe, Australia, and all over North America is where we spent our weekends.
When the people I spent all that time with stopped being in all these locations, it just lost some of its appeal to me. I'm not sure exactly what happened to make so many people stop at the same time, but it happened. I started to develop some interest in other things, and while I still loved to play Magic, the lack of camaraderie coupled with my growing tiredness of traveling caused me to step away from the game for a while at the beginning of 2005. I never stopped playing Magic entirely. I always played on Magic Online, as well as randomly with friends. But I stopped traveling to big events for about seven years.
Fast-forward to 2012:
I had been gaining a lot of momentum in voting for the Pro Tour Hall of Fame. Results were scheduled to be announced on my birthday. I waited patiently and found out that I had missed by a single vote. I was heartbroken. Never did I fault anyone for not voting for me, nor did I blame anyone. The class was incredible. There was always next year.
A couple weeks later I got home from work and found a message in my Facebook inbox from Scott Larabee. He informed me that they were giving me a special invitation to Pro Tour Return to Ravnica. I was thrilled. The first thing I did was call friend, coworker, and Hall of Famer Jelger Wiegersma. I knew he intended to attend the Pro Tour, and I wanted to inquire about working with him and the rest of Team SCG Black. He told me he was almost sure it wouldn't be a problem and would run it by the team the next day. I was really excited and impatient, though, so I sent Jon Finkel a message as well. The next day they both got back to me and let me know they'd be happy to have me on the team.
I was actually a little nervous as I headed to San Diego to test with the team. I had only met a handful of them and didn't know what to expect. It went better than I could have imagined. The team was a complete joy to be around. By the end of the preparation, I said that for the first time I would just accept a blind 24th place finish in the Pro Tour, which would qualify me for the next one, just so I could do it again. I felt like I was seventeen again. All I thought about was Magic. All I wanted to do was play Magic. Unfortunately, it wasn't meant to be. I went 9-7 in the Pro Tour, which obviously was not even close to good enough to finish in the Top 25. I headed back to work in sunny Curacao.
"Luckily" things weren't going that well for me at work. I just wasn't very happy with where I lived or with what I was doing. Around Christmas of 2012, I decided to go home. For the next six months, I played a ton of Magic. I definitely felt and noticed a lot of rust in my game. That was okay; I didn't expect to just return to the game at top form. I'd have to and wanted to work for it. I'm human, and I still got frustrated with myself at times in the beginning for making sloppy plays. I had a very comforting conversation with now Hall of Famer elect Ben Stark, who told me that he thought it took him a year after his return to get back to top form.
I hadn't played in a Pro Tour since Return to Ravnica, but due to the fact there was a Grand Prix in Portland the weekend before Pro Tour Dragon's Maze in San Diego, I decided I would go to that Grand Prix and help Team SCG prepare for the Pro Tour. By this point, I had become very close friends with Reid Duke and Owen Turtenwald. The week before the Grand Prix we decided to attend the StarCityGames.com Team Sealed Open in Somerset. It was going to be a fun few weeks with the Open, the Grand Prix, and then the Pro Tour, even if I was attending the Pro Tour only as a spectator. We ended up winning the Team Open, which was a great start to the trip.
We headed off to Portland and got ready for the Grand Prix and the Pro Tour. Zvi Mowshowitz and Paul Rietzl both ended up doing really well with Affinity and representing the team nicely at the Grand Prix. We left Portland and headed for our mansion in San Diego. This house was incredible. It had something like seven or eight bedrooms and a nice deck overlooking the beach. It also had a ping-pong table. The week was as fun as could be expected.
It turns out Andrew Cuneo is a very good ping-pong player. I think he went undefeated throughout most of the week. At one point, he was trying to convince Owen to play him in a game of ping-pong. Finally, they settled on a handicap. Cuneo was required to hold the paddle with only his middle three fingers in his opposite hand with one eye closed. Also, he was only allowed to speak if he did so like a pirate. It was hilarious. Every time Cuneo won a point, "Seven serving six, yarrrrr!" Owen ended up squeaking out the game in part due to a controversial decision. Cuneo forgot to speak like a pirate once, and Jelger awarded Owen a point. Owen ended up winning 21 to 19. Who knows what would have happened? In addition to the fun times, the team did a great job preparing for the Pro Tour and ended up putting three people in the Top 16.
On Sunday at the Pro Tour, Reid, Owen, and I headed over to the site in order to get some team drafts in. We were planning to play together at the upcoming Grand Prix in Providence and wanted to do some practice drafts. When we arrived at the site, someone told me they had received the email that morning with their invitation to be on the Hall of Fame Selection Committee. I was surprised it came so soon, but I had been patiently anticipating voting season for a year.
The next couple months included a stretch of five consecutive Grand Prix, Patrick Chapin's wedding, another StarCityGames.com Team Sealed Open, and the StarCityGames.com Invitational. All the while people on Twitter debated the merits of the candidates for this year's Hall of Fame class. Luis Scott-Vargas was a shoe-in and should have received no less than 100 percent of the vote. It seemed to me, from everything I was reading, that the frontrunners for non-LSV slots were Ben Stark, Chris Pikula, Makahito Mihara, and myself. I was extremely hopeful, but after what had happened in voting the previous year, I really tried to keep myself grounded and just let everything fall where it may.
I do want to say that during the process I was extremely touched by things people had to say about me. It also meant a great deal to me when people approached me at events me and told me how much they supported me, how much of a pleasure it was to meet me, how much of an honor they considered it to play against me, how happy that they were that I was back in Magic, or how much they hoped I would get in the Hall of Fame.
I will never forget when I received the call to inform me that I had been elected to the Pro Tour Hall of Fame. I was standing on the porch. When I heard the words, I didn't know what to do or how to react. I think I responded, "Ok." I was literally speechless. I got off the phone, and I stood there stunned and still. I started to think back on all those years I spent working at Magic. It was like my "Magic life" was flashing before my eyes. I started to get very emotional. I thought back on all the trips I'd taken, all the friends I'd made. I thought about great plays, about mistakes, the good tournaments, and the bad tournaments.
As I began to actually understand and process what was happening, I started to cry. I was just completely overcome with emotion. My peers, coverage reporters, commentators, judges, creators of the game, and Magic's elite players had decided that I was worthy of the Hall of Fame. They had decided that what I had accomplished at the thing I devoted the largest portion of my life to by far was worthy of giving me the game's highest honor.
As I came back to reality and turned to walk in the house, I remembered that thirteen-year-old boy at summer camp. He couldn't have even imagined what was happening to him now.