Jeff Cunningham's "Untold Legends Of The Million Dollar Magic The Gathering™ Pro Tour" Vol. 2
I mean, quite literally, the Ben Rubin.
Sir Ben Rubin. (Wasn't he knighted?)
Penned the seminal tome on modern ethical thought, "Beyond Good and Evil."
Oh wait, that was Nietzsche.
But Ben likes the philosophy of Nietzsche. Oh yes he does. Very much so.
He teamed with Ken Ho and Brian Kibler as Ubermenschen.
That's from Nietzsche. It means Supermen.
The single person that's taught me the most about Magic as a mindsport.
#02 - Ben Rubin - Pro Tour: LA 98
"Beyond Gas And Stains"
Ben Rubin and his deck at Pro Tour: LA 98 had a profound effect on my approach to Magic and the Pro Tour. Even though I wasn't qualified, my local store had had Tempest Constructed tournaments, so I knew the format.
I was attending a JSS at that PT, and had the opportunity to watch the entire Top 8. Ben Rubin's deck stunned me. I had been fooling around with White Weenies, and Rolling Thunder, and the typical garbage. And here was this deck where I knew all the cards - Bottle Gnomes, Intuition, Living Death, Corpse Dance, Staunch Defenders - but had never imagined how well they worked together (though it seems obvious now.) Sure there were other similar decks at the tournament, but this one seemed to have the most creative design. Not only that, but the pilot-the finalist of the Pro Tour-was only a year or two older than I was... "That could be me" I whispered. From that point on I always identified with Ben on some level.
As soon as I returned home from the PT, me and my friends all built copies of the deck, and began tuning it, tweaking it, trying different colors. It was as if I had just heard about electricity at the 1820 World's Fair. While I've never quite had the talent to build a strong archetype from scratch, it was this spin-off approach, heavy tinkering and variations, which has grown into my deck-building style. No deck has ever lent itself better to this style than Living Death decks.
Indeed, it was with variations of Ben's original deck that would later qualify me, and take me to good finishes at (picture a montage sequence here) the JSS championships (11th,) Canadian Nationals (5th,) and my first Pro Tour in Chicago (30th.) This took place over the period of a couple years.
As I grew closer to the Pro Tour, I found myself in increasingly close proximity with the Pro players I'd only admired from afar. When you're an unknown on the fringe of the Pro circuit without any standout finishes, rarely are you treated with much respect. In fact, some pros who I might now consider friends, at least people who are friendly to me, people like Steve OMS, Dave Williams, Doug Potter, Gabriel Nassif, and Huey, treated me very poorly at first. This was partly because I wasn't good yet, but also because they would interpret any unconventional decision on my part as inexperience. Nevertheless, the barn-treatment was mostly uncalled for. (--except from Doug Potter who I was, in fact, barning at the time.- JC)
Whenever my path crossed with Ben's, though, I was treated with dignity, despite his status as one of the best back then. This was thankful, since I held him in such high esteem that negative treatment could've warped my view on the world. It was also fitting; I credited Ben with helping me get me there. Ben Rubin has always been a kindred spirit.
After a while, I got onto the train. Ben Rubin was in my circle of friends and I got to know him. Over the years I've observed his approach to the game. I've played and been friends with a lot of great players, but Ben's philosophies have struck me as the truest, and are the ones I have tried to adapt into my own style. Ben may not express them as follows, but this is how I have interpreted them:
Challenge convention. Do you know how often the generally accepted pick-order in draft is wrong? Between Ken Ho and Ben Rubin I lost any anxiety I had about straying from conventional thought, or taking a common over that "bomb" rare, or trying extreme draft strategies-basically, I was encouraged to think for myself. While my teachers would sometimes disagree with the lengths to which I would apply their lessons (Ben even took me aside the time I cut Betrayal of Flesh for Myr Moonservant,) it was certainly the same school of thought. The same thing applies to actual games, and deckbuilding; allow yourself to be creative.
Don't give up the hard games. It sounds obvious, but very few people are to keep playing their best from an extremely disheartening board position. One time I was playing against Ben in Onslaught Limited. I went Sparksmith, Wirewood Savage, and then a 5/5 Canopy Crawler. I was literally laughing at him I was so far ahead. I was doing the dirty bird for a growing crowd. After considering the board and his hand for a moment he looked at me and said, "you know what? I'm going to be somebody. I'm going to win this game."
A smirk fluttered across my face. My leathery lips were pursed. This game?
He did win. It wasn't some rare I couldn't deal with, it was just flyers, tricks, and exceptional play on his part, and a bit of sloppiness on mine. I've seen Ben win a number of games many might deem unwinnable. It's hardest to play properly in the small margin of games where you're either way ahead or way behind. Try to.
The underlying tenet of all these strategies is thinking creatively. I think a person's ability and willingness to do this, coupled with their natural play skill, is what makes a successful Magic player.
Over the years, Ben has turned from idol to mentor to friend. Part of that transformation is humanization; my former hero no longer basks in a constant flattering light. I have seen Ben make devastating mistakes in (feature) matches versus inferior opponents, in what can only be called a breakdown. The poise that guided him to his early Top 8s has waned. His interest in philosophy has prompted him to experiment with conventional morality. He [censored] on an airplane next to a new mother. He routinely steals things. He tried to convince me to dine and dash at a hotel restaurant. When I refused, he tried to, but was caught by the waiter (the bill fell out of his jacket.) I once saw him lose a game of chess to a hobo. Now I'm just being petty.
But the change was not just subjective; during the years I got to know him, Ben's finishes cooled down. Ben Rubin has four Pro Tour Top 8s (LA 98, Worlds 98, NY 00, London 00,) and once had a lifetime 12-1 record in the Masters, against the best players in the world - but those accomplishments all took place during the first half of his career. What changed?
Ben cites two main factors. The first is variance; only one match makes the difference between Top 8 and Top 16 or 32, and luck does play a role. Even though Ben did not make Top 8s in the last half of his career, he consistently finished high enough that they were always a possibility. There was no point when Ben was finishing poorly. The second is the aforementioned loss of poise; the pressure that comes once one has lost nothing-to-lose. This, perhaps, coupled with less intense preparation. As fascinating as this game is, that initial excitement is irreplaceable, and it's that level of fascination that elevates a person's game to the next level. So once that was gone, maybe the time had just naturally come to move on?
Ostensibly, Ben would seem like a prime candidate to graduate to professional poker. Not only is his theoretical approach to the game incisive, but he obviously has the talent to put his ideas to work. However, to make this suggestion would reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of Ben's nature.
I once asked Ben for some poker basics. I respected his advice on Magic and knew he was well versed in Poker strategy. After a bit of the fundamentals, he gave me a warning that has stuck with me. "Poker is not a good game. Chess is a good game. Go is a good game. Magic is a good game. But Poker is not a good game."
I would later ask for clarification, and Ben illustrated the similarity between Poker and Rock, Paper, Scissors. The games are often described as deceptively simple. This statement is both true and false. On the one hand, yes, there is a deep element of strategy and skill to both games. On the other, this strategy is not inherent in the game; it comes from the human input, bluffing, and rebluffing, and rethinking, on so many levels.
Magic has these elements, but also has the creative space to move in other directions. Creative space is what makes a good game, a highly rewarding game.
What I am clumsily trying to get at here, is that if you distilled every Magic player down to either a Chess player or a Poker player (after all this is the game where "chess meets poker,"), I think it would be fair to describe Ben Rubin as a chess player in a field of mostly poker players. I believe this helps explain his unique approach to the game, and the certain dignity he carries, regardless how he is doing in the tournament, or if he is wearing shoes that day.
Ben has written a number of worthwhile strategy articles, and some great tournament reports. I especially recommend his PT Chicago 03 report. [That link is available only to Brainburst Premium-only - Knut] Former U.S. National Champion Craig Krempels has never been so accurately profiled.
PT LA 98 was the first Pro Tour I attended. The format remains my favorite (to this day I hope there is a single-set Constructed Pro Tour.) It is also the event that kicked off Ben's career, in dramatic fashion.
Maybe after this, you will feel the same way about it that a young Jeff Cunningham did so many years ago, gazing up at the stars?
At this point it's obvious I am fascinated both by the event and the personality, so I'll (finally) let Ben speak for himself.
Pro Tour LA III
by Ben Rubin
As some of you hopefully know, I was once a great man, a contender- a someone...
Those days may be... yeh... But in memorium, I've been asked to take a step back even farther; to where it all came clear - my first Pro Tour: Los Angeles III.
At the risk of you not caring, here's a little about where I was at the time. It was 1998, I was about half way through my Freshman Year of High School (grades 9-12). I had been at a small school for grades K-8, and was kicking off my new life at a school of 2200 where I was part of a very small minority of white kids. I was the token whitey on the Junior Varsity Basketball team (I was a third stringer), and had to wake up at 7 in the morning for computer class every day.
I had had some luck at a recent Grand Prix (Top 16), one that had been concurrent with Pro Tour: Mainz (meaning none of the big guns were at the Grand Prix to beat me), which gave me the confidence to eventually work to a qualification at a local PTQ.
The parentals had some reservations when I told them I wanted to go to Pro Tour: Los Angeles.
"But I'm a contender, this is my chance... I won't have to sweep floors and lay brick and take orders like you do".
"And what's wrong with sweeping floors and laying brick?"
"I wanna be someone!... not that you guys... well..."
They didn't seem to care much about my aspirations to greatness- they were more interested in how how I was going to pay for my flight and hotel.
"Ah, that's right, y'all lay brick."
Luckily, I had won some money at the Grand Prix and PTQ, and got some sponsorship from Ballpark Sports cards (my old stomping grounds).
Of course, I had played in a couple Junior Pro Tours, but this was the first time I'd have to play against people like Mike Long, Mark Justice, Olle Rade etc.. Being 15, I, of course, did nothing but practice for the tournament. Dan Clegg and I even shrank to practicing over the phone (where Dan, exasperated by my good draws, would sometimes ask questions like "did you cut your deck before we started?"). And it's a good thing we did.
Funny thing about the old days - we played a zillion different decks against each other, scrapped for ideas from whoever we talked to who was playing the format, and still, I swear to God, it was only a few weeks before the tournament that we even had a real version of the deck that would compose about half the field: Mono-Red beatdown (this was the debut Pro Tour for Cursed Scroll and Jackal Pup and Mogg Fanatic). We had versions with White for Disenchant. We had versions splashing other colors. But Wastelands? We hadn't played much with those. Luckily our deck ran low on lands (many of them nonbasic) and was heavily committed in three colors. Eh.
So we showed up with our groovy Living Death, Tradewind Rider, Intuition, Manakin (yes, the 1/1 for two that tapped for a colorless) deck. Dan got a little edgy and decided to do some testing the night before. Bad idea - Casey ("savagetopdeck" McCarrel) beat the snot out of him with the aforementioned Red deck (some of these guys even had the nerve to run Stone Rains). Luckily, I hadn't yet found humility, and treated Dan with my usual disrespect, "Well, sorry you lost; I think I'll be able to beat that deck." Like I said, I was aspiring to greatness.
In case you weren't around back then, the format was Tempest only and the big decks were the Mono-Red beatdown deck, and Bottle Gnomes control decks (most with Counterspells, and Winds of Rath - a five-mana Wrath of God). Of course everyone knew about the Red deck (except, you know, us), but true to form, most "pros" didn't work on improving it and assumed that Bottle Gnomes and Chill or Circle of Protection: Red would be enough to win that matchup (and it probably was enough to beat whatever ill-tuned version they were testing against). But, really, the deck was very consistent, resilient and diverse in the ways it could hurt you. There were, of course, fast, efficient creatures. There was renewable artifact damage (Cursed Scroll and Scalding Tongs). There was burn, there was land destruction, and they even had a serious fatty (Rathi Dragon).
So anyway, Dan and I, and some other pals were there, and the tourney started. My first pairing was Truc Bui. To me, he was a sort of living legend [at that time the Nor Cal guys looked up to the So Cal guys (they were better than we were), and Truc was a big cheese in the So Cal world. Naturally I, being a kiddy in the No Cal world, placed any such big (or even medium) cheese up there with the immortals]. Dan, bless his heart, encouraged me to "beat him down". For those of you who don't know Dan Clegg, I think it might be time to do an uh... intro.
From ages 12 to 15 I was real close with Dan. Our major activities were Magic, Basketball and Lasertag. He was better than I was at all of them. Luckily, I was armed with an excellent excuse: he was three years older. In all seriousness, this excuse was enough to allow me to maintain the swagger that I had developed after being the biggest kid in my grade through Elementary School (thank Jewish private school). For Dan's part, he got the sweet joy of repeatedly pummeling someone who thinks they're the sh*t. You know what I mean, right? Like beating some halfass ain't bad, but it gets old pretty quick. To beat someone who takes themselves seriously and is obviously giving it his all, expecting to win - that's where it's at as far as I'm concerned.
So anyway, by PTLA III we were roughly equals at Magic and we came into the tournament with similar expectations (can't say I remember what those were, though). Although Dan certainly did not fail at tournament Magic, he would not go on to be as successful as I was, and had some trouble staying qualified and having money to get to the tournaments. Dan was always a little short on the reciprocation end (not the sort whose mom would pick kids up from soccer practice or treat us to a movie or whatever), and I was therefore pretty niggardly about helping him out with money. You can imagine the resentment that followed. Hopefully he'll still vote for me for the Hall of Fame though!
Against Truc, I remember my first hand having no Blue mana (two of my most important cards in the early game were Intuition and Tradewind Rider). I have always been an aggressive mulliganer, so although I had two lands and a Manakin, along with I think a Living Death and 3 Blue cards, this hand was not a keeper. But you know what? I didn't even have the confidence to mulligan! Who was I to defy what had already become fairly standard, "mulliganing is death, keep any reasonable hand"? Sure enough, Truc ran me over before I got Blue. Luckily, despite my fear and complete lack of composure, I had played the deck so many times it was just second nature. And in games two and three my superior deck showed itself.
Truc's was sort of a half beatdown, half control deck, which has been a good sort of strategy in some formats; but when matches are revolving around one game swinging card like Cursed Scroll or Living Death, the opponent's life total often doesn't matter once he gets control - especially because he didn't have direct damage to follow up with, the early damage he did me with his weenies didn't matter much once I had Living Deathed and returned some Bottle Gnomes and Staunch Defenders. Also I had Tradewind Riders (which he didn't); so if I survived the early game, I could selectively return whatever permanents were hurting me, and eventually get more and better creatures in play.
I won the next round as well, and eventually got to round 7 at 4 wins, 2 losses. Most of my friends (including Dan) had since been eliminated. Now, you'd think I would draw into Day 2, right? But again the fear was back! The guy didn't offer, and who was I to rock the boat? With this kind of fear of the awkward, you can imagine I have an easy time talking to girls...
But I beat my opponent and was on to Day 2.
I'm not a great sleeper - never have been, so you can imagine my luck that night. I probably only slept a couple of hours, sharing a bed, packed into a room full of poor young gamers. Luckily, the excitement that kept me up at night (in addition to goofballs coming and going, and the person next to me in bed), was still there in the morning. In addition, I really didn't have goals for the tournament, and was just there to do as well as I could - so it was hard to get down on myself or take my nervousness too seriously (one can be nervous without letting oneself get carried away with it).
Day 2 started with me winning, then losing, then winning, then playing my friend Casey McCarrel. Casey had just come off a match with Scott Johns where he (Casey) had gotten a game loss for flipping one of Scott's cards for a second time during shuffling. Regardless of what you think of the fairness of this ruling (I was mad at the time, but I dunno, seems like you gotta penalize that sorta thing, right?), it had Casey understandably furious. He's a pretty low-key guy, so this was weird for me, especially since one of us was about to get eliminated from Top 8 contention. And now another character intro:
Casey was a few years older than I was, but was pretty small, and sorta cute and quiet - so he looked about 14. But in Northern California, everyone knew who he was. Brian Weissman may have been the most famous Nor Cal player at the time, but I'm pretty sure Casey was the most dominant. He was routinely around the top of the standings in the tournaments at Matchplay (the big tournament center at the time, now Neutral Ground San Francisco), even back when they mixed the "Juniors" (18 and under, which Casey was easily) with the rest of the field and just did separate Top 8s (the Top 8 Juniors in the standings advanced, Top 8 "masters" or "seniors" advanced). He was also regarded as the best at one-on-one draft, which back then was often the measure of a man (you can imagine the showdowns: "hey man, you wanna draft?" didn't just mean a friendly 8-man. And when we were young and poor, playing one-on-one for 20 or 30 dollars was a big deal). At the time I played Casey at the Pro Tour, he had already made the Top 8 of U.S. Nationals, made Top 16 at the Junior Pro Tour (18 and under, sort of like a mini Pro Tour for youngsters, but a bit more prestigious than Junior Super Series is now), and made Top 8 of a Grand Prix (where he eliminated me in the last round). Casey and I were friends before PTLA 3, though not close. He was the best player I played with, and we would grow closer as we succeeded on the Pro Tour and practiced more together. Casey would go on to make Top 8 at Pro Tour: New York that same year, win Pro Tour: Seacaucus the next year (nearly claiming the Player of the Year title with a win and a finals that year, despite missing Pro Tour: Rome and attending very few Grand Prixes), and have numerous other good finishes (including winning a team Grand Prix with yours truly!). Casey had some brushes with the DCI, and I doubt he was an innocent party. But I still maintain that he was an excellent player (even by Pro Tour standards), and appreciate the standard he set when we were young.
So, Casey and I played. Game 1, as he had done with Dan the night before Day 1, he Stone Rained me and Wastelanded me, and killed me before I could cast a spell. Rough.
Game 2 I got to go first, and after I played some bad dual land (Tempest block control decks were filled with the shamefully bad dual lands), Casey played a weenie, and then I drew, played my second land and couldn't help but smile as I played what Casey hadn't faced in his unsideboarded games against Dan:
Red spells cost an additional 2 to play.
Might seem a little flaky against a weenie deck, but it meant Stone Rain took forever to cast (remember, they were only running 16-18 Mountains with 4 Wastelands, which they wanted to use against me right away), and their artifact damage (which relied on them having few cards in hand) was often hindered as well. Also, if one got it early enough (say, turn 2, both games, like I did) it meant the weenie stream came out much slower, they couldn't get ahead by Kindling my guy and casting one of their own on the same turn. Naturally, I also followed up with a Chill on turn 3 in both games, slamming the door, and then played creatures with big toughness that gained life (Staunch Defenders and Bottle Gnomes). After beating Dan so badly a few days before, being made so helpless in the last two games against me, Casey was dealt one of those - how you say - refreshing losses. You know, one where you can be sure you were not outplayed, outdecked (what a coinage!), but were simply made helpless through some good fortune of your opponent's. Shall we say: a guilt-free defeat? Although I'm sure I salted his wounds a little with my uncontrollable "Go Me!" grins, Casey, as always, was a good sport, and genuinely wished me luck. He ended up doing alright, too, finishing 38th or some such.
The next round was against a European fellow sporting the Blue/White control deck that was fairly popular. For some reason, I remember feeling very competent in that matchup (though it was not always easy to play), and I beat the guy pretty handily, making me 9 and 3. I was in the mindset of "yeah, wins are good, mise" (although "mise" was still "might as well" back then) when I heard a pretty distinct clap. I can only describe it as the sort you might hear when a guy needs par on his last hole to win, and has just hit a solid tee shot. I looked over and it was sweet old (young) Dan, cheering for me despite his frustration with his own performance. It was real nice, although it sort of reminded me that I was, in fact, one or two matches away from Top 8.
Next round I played against another kid from California - Roger Ver. He's sort of a freakish character in his own right (at one point he hit a deer on the road, possibly intentionally, and left it at the door of some guy he didn't like), and is also credited with being the first to say that Jackal Pup is better than Savannah Lions (I believe the exact quote continues simply with "because it's Red"). Anyway, many of the people I knew watched our match. In the end it wasn't so dramatic, with Roger getting a poor draw game 1, and me getting an early Chill and hitting all of my land drops in game 2 (the vast majority of games I lost in the tournament were due to my opponents killing my lands). At this point I got some congratulations on making Top 8, although I knew that there was a decent chance I wouldn't be able to draw in next round. Back then, Pro Tours were a bit smaller and the usual break was at 10 wins 3 losses and a draw (with the majority making it). Regardless, the good natured congratulations was appreciated, although it was accompanied with a mystified feeling of "are you really the same kid whose mom used to call looking for you at Matchplay?"
This is not so weird, considering I had started playing tournament Magic when I was not yet 14, so these people had all seen me at times where I was certainly not worthy of competing in a Pro Tour, much less doing well at one. I still remember my improvement during the years leading up to that Pro Tour and must say it was an extremely exciting time. Magic was what I played with my friends after school, it was what I thought about when I daydreamed during class (if I wasn't concentrating on whatever deck I was building in my notebook), and it was what I wanted to do with every other spare moment. I remember feeling very silly when I would wonder to myself "what do people think about who don't play Magic?" It was as if my whole life before then had been so pedestrian, and that everyone who didn't play Magic was still stuck in the same. Perhaps others feel the same way about their first loves, I don't know.
Anyway, I was 10 and 3 and excited - but, strangely, composed. I felt like my tournament was already a success, but that I had at least one (potentially more) high stakes match in front of me and this was no time to let down on my concentration. It's kind of odd to look back at my frame of mind in this tournament. I remember not mulliganing against Truc, laying a Blue land to bluff countermagic and getting it Wastelanded when I should've waited on it to play a Tradewind, and prematurely using an Intuition in the Top 8, but really not feeling I had made any other mistakes in the tournament. In tournaments since, I was surprised if at the end of a round I hadn't made at least one serious mistake (and in some tournaments it was many more) per round - and in some games I would simply lose my confidence completely and play like an altogether different person.
But that first tournament was different. I was nervous at times, but really never lost my patience - never lost my concentration and felt good about my play throughout. Unfortunately, I've never felt so good about my play since - which is pretty odd to me. Perhaps I developed a broader understanding of the game later, and was able to see more of my mistakes. Perhaps I never again knew my deck as well as I had in that tournament. Perhaps something about having already done well f*cked with me through the rest of my career. Hard to say.
Anyway, round 14 pairings were announced and I was to play Randy Buehler, who I knew as Pro Tour: Chicago Champion (which was his first Pro Tour!) from earlier that season. They had all of the people in Top 8 contention go off to the side where we were given printouts of the standings and pairings, and were to decide if we would be intentionally drawing or not. It was clear that if I drew I was in, but there was a good chance Randy would not. So we set to play. He somehow knew it was my first PT, and congratulated me on "a hell of a run". I told him, somewhat skittishly, it was cool he had won his first PT and I planned to do the same.
I won the die roll and played a basic land. He played a Forest and said done. I played a nonbasic and a Manakin. He Wastelanded, and played a Metallic Sliver (1/1 for 1). This turn dispirited me for two reasons. One, I didn't have another land, and he had just killed one. Two, that Forest and Metallic Sliver and Wasteland almost certainly meant he was playing the Mono-Green deck I had lost to earlier in the tournament.
I untapped, drew and passed the turn. Now I wouldn't say I was crushed here, but certainly I felt like "there's a serious chance I will lose this round - but that's okay." Randy then played another land and hit me for 1. I happily drew a land my next turn and was able to Intuition for my fourth mana source to get Tradewind out. This was a funny Tradewind Rider though.
Back then, although most people played with sleeves, the opponent had the right to ask for you to desleeve. This meant that both your sleeves and your cards needed to be considered unmarked when the judges did a deck check. I had had such a deck check earlier in the tournament and my opponent had either gotten a game loss or at least been told he had to replace a lot of his cards. In his frustration, he had grabbed my deck and started looking at the backs of cards like "well if yer gonna get me, you gotta get him too" even though I had passed the deckcheck without issue. So the judge, wishing to appease him but not penalize me, had made me a proxy (usually a player would have to go and find new copies of the cards he was asked to replace) for the Tradewind Rider that they agreed was at least potentially offensive. So I was playing with a basic land with 'Tradewind Rider' written across it. When cast it I was to pull the actual Tradewind out and put it in play instead of the Proxy.
So, the Tradewind I had in my hand was the proxy, and when I played it, pulling the actual card out of my shirt pocket, Randy had qualms. Jeff Donais was judging the match, and they had the following exchange:
[Randy] So your Tradewind was marked?
[Me] *Awkwardly explains*
[Randy] So it's a marked card? The floor rules say that marked cards are to be punished with a game loss.
[Jeff] The judge who checked his deck would have had to find it to be marked, and award the penalty at that time. It seems he didn't, and that the card was simply damaged and is being replaced with a proxy.
[Randy] But it must have been marked to have merited replacement! The floor rules are crystal clear on this, it's a game loss.
[Jeff] Randy, the judge checking his deck would have had to give that penalty.
[Randy] *Stares into space, obviously frustrated*
I described the look of the judge, apparently someone Jeff knew, and we were informed he had already left the site. Jeff told us to continue and we did.
Now I've read a few penalty guideline books in my time (although I had not read the floor rules) and must admit that it's often very confusing to the casual reader. What look like the same offenses will be given different penalties in different sections, and the difference between the two is just how severe the residing judge thinks the offense was. But all the same, this episode kind of lit a fire under me. I was first of all very thankful to Jeff for standing so solid and not making me defend myself. But what of this attempt to beat me with the floor rules? I was at the time somewhat in awe of Pro Tour, and even impressed with the general sportsmanship of its participants, so this unwelcome incident (even if it was resolved quickly and in my favor) filled me with a want to both avenge the spirit of the Pro Tour (you may be happy to learn that I am no longer so idealistic), and to show that petty people don't prevail.
Am I saying that Randy Buehler is an affront to the Pro Tour? I'm sure he's done it a lot of good, I'm just relating how I felt at the time.
So, back to the game. Because of Randy's bad draw, my late-arriving Tradewind was enough, once I played another creature, to take control of the game without even having to play a Living Death. After trying some attacks that failed, Randy conceded. As he began picking up his cards I couldn't help but ask "thought you'd try some things out first (before you conceded), I guess?"
The second game he was playing first and had the bad Llanowar Elf of that format that let you play extra lands. So turn 2 he accelerated out a Winter's Grasp. Turn 3 he Wastelanded, turn 4 Winter's Grasp, and I had no chance.
Game 3 is one of my prouder moments. I had been taking a beating, with a slow draw that had lots of my smaller creatures, dying to his Cursed Scroll, which also had the potential to protect his Rootwalla from Living Death. I've tried to recall all the details but it's been a while so I'll skip to the pivotal moment. Suffice to say that I was in a pickle, taking a lot of damage, in a board position that I both can't quite remember, and would regardless be very difficult to understand through words.
But I'm gonna try anyway: I had five lands, Tradewind and Bottle Gnomes in play and an Intuition and Staunch Defender in my hand. What I needed was to be able to keep my lands untapped to Intuition for Living Death, on the same turn that he tapped out (meaning he couldn't Scroll his own Rootwalla). The problem was that if I didn't play anything, my board position would be so decrepit that he wouldn't need to tap out to get damage through, except if he felt I was helpless, wanted to rush to kill me before a Winds of Rath, or he really wanted to rub it in. But if I wasn't able to get off a good Living Death soon, I was overmatched by his many creatures and Cursed Scroll, with my life total dwindling.
So I drew a Rats of Rath, a 2/1 that lets me pay B to sacrifice a creature (what a deal!). Although this would let me sacrifice my Tradewind, I knew it was not enough to get me out of the situation if he kept his Rootwalla (because Tradewind's friends were too small to live through Scrolling). So "looking helpless" felt like my only out (other than maybe Intuitioning for creatures and topdecking a Living Death the next turn). And here my resentment for the game 1 incident (doubtlessly overblown in my young mind) got me going. I scowled unmistakably, looking at the card I had drawn. I sloppily tapped a few lands and sort of dropped it into play on my side, quietly saying "go" afterward.
If Randy had known my hand, he would simply have attacked with all his creatures, gotten one of them bounced, pushed a little damage through, and kept his Scroll mana up. Especially considering I had been Intuitioning and even played a Rats of Rath, the writing was on the wall - so this is how I expected him to play around Living Death.
To be fair, he hadn't seen a Living Death from me, nor had his teammate (who beat me in two quick games earlier in the tournament). Most Blue/White/Black control decks had Winds of Rath as their board clearer, so perhaps he was rushing to get damage through before I Winds of Rathed and Disenchanted his Scroll (though obviously I hadn't been slowrolling a Disenchant, so I was going to have to peel it pretty soon). But I think, especially after talking to him about it later, that he saw a shaken, upstart kid - broken by the pressure, the beatdown and the opposition of a Pro Tour Champion.
So he untapped and Scrolled my Rat, meaning if I wanted to return a guy, I had to do it immediately (I declined) and attacked with everyone. I made chumpy blocks, shaking my head the whole time - putting my Gnomes (1/3) in front of his Rootwalla, and my Tradewind (1/4) in front of his Trained Armodon (3/3), knowing full well that he could pump his Walla and Elvish Fury his Armodon.
And he did.
Suddenly all of my creatures were in my graveyard and his Scroll was tapped! I felt my face brighten, my chin raise, and my um... spirits soar. I used my remaining lands to Intuition for Living Death; untapped, and Deathed away all his creatures, leaving me with Tradewind, Bottle Gnomes, Manakin and Rats of Rath, facing his lone Cursed Scroll. And I had a Staunch Defenders waiting in my hand which I would be able to play next turn and recycle for life.
Randy was sheepish in his disappointment. He played on a little and eventually conceded, quietly walking away. There was some clapping and back-slapping and people were very happy for me. And of course, more of the "are you the same Ben?" went on as we went out to dinner.
I went to sleep that night very pleased, but also pretty pessimistic about my quarterfinal match. I would be playing Andy Wolf with his Suicide Black deck with Dark Rituals and Spinal Grafts, meaning his would be even faster than the Red decks. He also had Coercions and his own Living Deaths, as well as Dark Banishings in his sideboard to keep - he would be able to take my Living Deaths from hand, reset with his own Living Deaths, and even kill my Tradewinds immediately.
So I woke up, showed up for pictures then sat around near the stage - waiting for us to start. While I was definitely poised to play, I was certainly not equipped to deal with all of the strange circumstances. First of all, I would be playing Magic on a stage, with cameras, and people watching and commentators discussing my play. Second, I was surrounded by accomplished Magic players, famous judges and writers. All of this added up to me feeling uncomfortable speaking. So I sort of sat there, hoping we could just start already (although I wasn't too anxious to be on that stage either). But then a funny thing happened. I heard someone ask "who's that?" obviously referring to me. And Svend Geertsen, who I knew from his Stompy deck at the World Championships, piped up "that's Ben." This might not sound like much, but it was sort of like my first day of school and someone saying "yeah, I know that guy". Although I was hardly a socialite thereafter, I certainly felt more comfortable.
The Top 8 started. First game I won the die roll and played a third-turn Tradewind. He was running sort of light on lands, so I was able to keep him with relatively few creatures in play while I got my guys out. Oddly, with his Sarcomancy damage I was able to just beat him by attacking, without even setting up a big Living Death (I kept it in hand to counteract a potential Living Death from him). Game two I think I just stayed alive with a Bottle Gnomes then Intuition Living Deathed and he didn't have enough lands to cast one. Game three, he had a great draw, Ritualing out a guy, then playing another, then Coercioning turn 3 (taking a Bottle Gnomes because I had no Intuition or Living Death in hand), then playing a big guy turn 4. But the turn after he Coercioned, I drew Living Death, and after chump blocking to stay alive, I Living Deathed and he didn't have one to get me back with, so it was quickly over.
He was of course quite upset at not drawing a Spinal Graft (which would've been enough to beat me in at least game 2), while I was amazed he hadn't Wastelanded me (turns out he wasn't playing them - too many double Black costs I guess!). So, tight.
Next round I played against Adam Katz, who was playing a pretty similar deck to mine, but without White. I was unsure whose deck was better in the matchup, though I guessed his because he wasn't tied down with Disenchants, and had more aggressive creatures in place of my very passive seeming Staunch Defenders. But in a Living Death on Living Death match, the play of games themselves was what really decided things.
In the first game, I got Lobotomied for my Tradewinds after he Capsized one, but then I Corpse Danced a Dauthi Mindripper leaving him with just lands in play and no hand (I had been returning his creatures to hand) against a couple of sh*tty creatures for me and a Corpse Dance in hand. Unfortunately, he topdecked like a monster and soon had a Tradewind and two Skyshroud Vampires in play. I had Bottle Gnomes in my graveyard so I was high on life, but couldn't get through for much damage. I had a lot of creatures, but he slowly got what looked like control to me, though he was at something like 5 and I was at like 50. The problem was that I was behind in the decking race and he had a Capsize in hand and an active Tradewind, meaning he should be able to keep me from dealing the last damage (I had won almost all my games with Tradewind control, so trying to squeeze through damage like this was awkward for me, to say the least).
At one point (after about 50 minutes of play) I decided that if he played properly I had no chance to win and might as well concede. A moment later I remember thinking "wait, this is the Pro Tour Semifinals, this isn't anytime to be respectful!" And Adam, who I was told "had a hard time finishing" (laugh) ended up being sloppy. I guess the idea of just settling in for twenty more turns didn't appeal to him, so he tried to landlock me. This meant letting in a few extra points of damage. With me casting timely Living Deaths to throw off his calculations, I was able to capitalize on his overambition and eventually swarm him for the win.
Games two and three were also very long and difficult. Though they're sort of a fog now, my friends told me I played really well, afterwards - so I'm going to go with that. In fact, some pro even went as far as to tell me that I had "won 0-3" - meaning that Adam could've won every game but that his mistakes (and presumably my good play) had turned every game.
So, going into the finals I had won my last seven games, and my last seven matches - was I supposed to expect anything other than victory? So I got back from my match, apologized to Dave Price (my finals opponent) for the long wait (his match against Dave Bachmann had ended before our first game did). Once we got on stage, Dave said something like "so do you want to do some sort of split?" I immediately "no thanks"d him. They took some pictures, all the while with Dave giving me the staredown for which he would later become famous (well, sort of famous). I sort of laughed it off and then we started. Props for having a game face, though.
Game 1 he went first and got off to a quick start, and had me low on life in a hurry. I remember on my last turn needing to draw a land that didn't come into play tapped (only 19, oddly enough) in order to Living Death and probably take the game - but I didn't. Game 2 he kept a fairly poor hand and I won easily. Game 3 I think I got run over, and game 4 I drew a bunch of life gainers and lands (going first) and won. So it all came down to game 5. He would be going first, which was an advantage (the winner of the previous four games had been on the play), but I had been winning a lot with Chill and expected to finally draw one (I hadn't yet).
I later heard that when Chris Pikula (who was commentating with Brian Weissman) saw Dave's opening hand he exclaimed something like "yes!" I mulliganed and didn't draw a Chill, so you can imagine how things went. I didn't get a non-land permanent in play and Dave was champ.
It was a weird feeling. I wasn't like upset, I congratulated Dave and such; but I think that this was when it hit me. I would no longer have to argue with my parents about staying out late to play Magic. I wouldn't have to scrounge for money to buy cards, wouldn't have to grind through qualifiers, and most of all, I was famous! Jeff Donais saw this all hit me and was very nice saying something like "great job, I didn't see you make a single mistake." Good man.
My friends gave me a little sh*t for not splitting, but there was a lot of congratulations (of course watered down with the usual incredulity) and good feeling. And I was on my way - to a long, somewhat fulfilling, intensely demanding, very much life-defining, Magic career.