The Origins of Zvi Volume 2: The First Pro Tour
The next chapter in this story begins with my discovery of a little store called Neutral Ground.
I don’t remember how I found it. Chances are someone at school told me about the place. My guess is it was Steven O’Mahoney-Shwartz. The first time I heard about him, he was in the lunch room buying Moxen for fifty each and then reselling them for ninety. Smart kid. Suddenly he had a collection, and he was one of the few players at school that could give me a run for my money, especially after Adam stopped playing. Even at a card disadvantage he was always tough. Going to Neutral Ground seemed like a great way to find new opponents, and it was. I no longer had to worry about finding worthy opponents, although at the hours I liked to be there often there was no one there; it can be tough to find a game at 2:30 on a weekday. There was just one problem. Freedom was not free.
To go into Neutral Ground back in the day, you needed to pay. Steven may have been the first customer, or at least co-first with his brother Dan, but I had two choices. I had to buy twenty dollars worth of cards to get in, which was an acceptable plan on tournament days but certainly not going to work if I wanted to come every day, or I could buy a membership. Given how often I was going to be using it, that would mean a yearly. At the cost of almost three hundred dollars. I didn’t have that kind of money lying around, so it took several months before I could pull it together and in the end I don’t remember whether I did it myself or convinced my parents to ante up. All I remember is that I finally got my membership dues paid up, and would continue to pay them until the store was forced to rescind that policy.
My first tournament at Neutral Ground was again a Standard tournament. In the meantime, Ice Age had come out. For my first tournament at Neutral Ground, I built a Hypnotic Specter deck. Now most people who build Black decks were smart enough to include Hypnotic Specter, but I took it to the next level. I included Blue, with Portent to help find Hypnotic Specter. I backed it up with Abyssal Specter and Hymn to Tourach. I used Unsummon to return cards to the opponents’ hand so I could clear a path for (or protect) Hypnotic Specter. When the time came to kill people, I basically did it with Hypnotic Specter by getting The Rack to work. Looking back, I’m not sure how I won that tournament but somehow I did. Opponents back then didn’t do anything that threatening. It was a simple card war, so turn after turn I would try to get a Specter down. If I did, I would win the game. If I didn’t, I’d keep working on it until I did. It seems kind of flimsy but it worked. This time getting from that first victory to dominating tournament after tournament was not going to be so easy. I held my own against the regulars, but the real tournaments were still the thousand dollar competitions and I didn’t dare try and play in them for a long time.
The big change came when there was an announcement of something called the “Black Lotus Pro Tour.” Suddenly a thousand dollar tournament looked like peanuts. I’d played in only one tournament with a four figure prize, called Unlimited Possibilities. The prize was a set of unlimited, and it was three single elimination tournaments feeding into a Top 8 that was Sealed Deck played with far too many cards, a sort of semi-constructed. I played a deck whose creatures included four copies of Nether Shadow and Ashen Ghoul. I made it through all four rounds, including a showdown in the fourth with Jon Finkel himself. If you think of the way you feel when you face Finkel, or would if you did face him, that’s how I felt. I expected him to run in circles around me, but that’s not what happened. His Winter Orbs faced off against my Ghouls and I came out ahead. To this day he claims that I won that game off of a Ghoul that should have been removed from the game, and for all I know he’s right. I don’t remember the details. However I know the card that would have been responsible, and it proves one thing. Four copies of Necropotence go a long way. I lost in the quarterfinals and went home with something like a Mana Drain. First experiences are important: Every step of the way, I got enough encouragement from my results that I believed that I could make it.
It was an exciting time. Mike Rothchild comes into the store and says that all the White/Blue players are quaking in their boots. Why? There was a new rule: The first player wouldn’t draw a card on the first turn and now they didn’t know whether they wanted to go first. That never did make any sense to me, since all players would be giving up the extra card equally, so as long as they made sure to go first half the time, not having a preference wouldn’t make a difference. It’s actually an interesting question who benefits from the play/draw rule in strategic terms other than “players trying to get lucky and win the die roll because they suck” but that’s a topic I don’t think is worth getting into. I knew right away, I wanted to draw. Who would pay an entire card just for the privilege of playing the first land? It dawned on me slowly, but the other point of view made a lot more sense with the old card pools. I think Thawing Glaciers snapped me out of it. The Pro Tour itself was sold out to those who got lucky on the phone lines, but there was also a junior division. It was downtown - a subway ride away. I had the fifty dollar entry fee and a decklist with four copies of Dark Ritual and Necropotence. Can’t go wrong with Necropotence. My deck was not the best, but against the field that showed up I’d have taken my chances. Hell, against the Top 8 I’d take my chances and hope to not run into Leon Lindback… or the Junior champion, who actually had a very, very good decklist.
I did not go to the first Pro Tour. Why not? Because it would have involved playing on a Saturday, which of course was the holy Sabbath and how dare I try and play in a competition for money on that day? Or at least that’s what my parents said. I offered to walk down to the Puck building, getting up at 3am if I had to since I lived uptown, but they weren’t buying it. All you had to do to enter the Junior competition was call, and the players were terrible. On day two I went to the Tour and upstairs to the side event area.
Downstairs people like Mark Justice and Bertrand Lestree were playing for real money. Upstairs I was beating up on the Wizards gunslinger and playing in a repeated draft tournament where four cards were put onto the table, one player took one, the second player took two and then the first player got the fourth and then you alternated… and you took the cards from last round into your next round. I finished third while “My Boyfriend’s Back” played in the background. Come to think of it, that would be the first tournament theme song that stuck with me. I should add it to my list.
That meant that the biggest tournaments I had a shot at, since the Saturday thing messed with the 1K tournaments even when I felt ready, were the monthly “Mox Madness” ones at Neutral Ground. I took my Necropotence deck to one, and ended up in the finals against… Steve OMS. Perhaps I had a nemesis after all. You need one in every good origin story, and you have to know each other: Go to the same school, learn the game together, then the friendship is torn asunder! Good thing I planted him in the first act, especially as he’s been in Rolling Stone. That’s publicity you can buy, but it’ll cost you! By the time the next one came, the Necro decks had become actively good and everyone was desperate to find a way to beat them without making a deck that sucked. I created a Jokulhaups deck complete with Orcish Lumberjacks, tested it endlessly against the boys in Black and beat three of them to come out on top. It was my first metagame deck.
I played in some qualifiers after that, but the real struggle was going to be getting permission to go. When it was in New York and entry was fifty bucks, I’d been shot down. I have a long history of wearing the parental units down on things like this, but that took a while. When I made the semi-finals of a Junior PTQ, where I lost to the ever present Steve OMS, I was happy to get my prize and trade some of that massive mess of packs to Steve for a set of the PT1 decks after he parlayed his threat to eat the slot into all the prize money and a good time was had by all.
It seems fitting that I would finally get on the tour with a Block deck. It was Ice Age block constructed season, the first block ever, and I was kicking much ass around Neutral Ground with my Jokulhaups deck, very similar to the one that I had used in the second Mox tournament. I tested against all comers, and a local named David Collins would put together the lists from Columbus, which I’d smash. That taught us several things. The Pros didn’t have all the answers, and Olle Rade won a Pro Tour with a deck that did not have any land in it. None. There is as much land in Rade’s deck as there is sex in the Champaign Room. Oh, there’s giant spiders in Rade’s deck, but you don’t want Giant Spiders. You want land. And there is no land in Rade’s deck. Sure, I’d won my first tournaments without land too, but that was because no one had enough land and the opposition wasn’t that strong. And I still had way more land than Olle did. Curious how he won? So was I.
We’d have tournaments every week, and I was doing well when I finally ran into a list that seemed even better: A mono-Black deck based on Withering Whips. For the first time in my Magic career, I decided to use someone else’s deck idea and run with it. How ironic is it that the first deck I copied was also the first time I won a qualifier? In some ways the story molds itself into a script a little too well. The good news is that I didn’t mindlessly ask for a decklist: I started with what he had, and then tuned it as much as I dared. Here’s how I remember this deck, with the only maindeck card I’m not confident in being Dark Banishing:
Homelands wasn’t in the block at the time, in case you’re wondering why certain cards are missing. Was this the best deck in the format? I strongly suspect that it was. Was it the best build? I’m not sure, but I strongly suspect it was pretty damn close. You had a great set of tools for any kind of opponent, and lots of ways to evade the hate cards. I took it to a PTQ at the New Yorker. When you sign up, you choose Junior or Senior division. To make the top 8 as a Senior, you need to go 6-1-1. To make it as a Junior, you need to not have a seven o’ clock curfew. The protocol seemed obvious, especially as it was not at all clear which way you would rather qualify. The Junior division was clearly radically easier, but offered only scholarship money and far less in total.
This deck proceeded to run over the format. In many ways it is an insidiously strong build. You take their creature with Dance of the Dead, then kill their copy with Withering Whips… or kill it, then take it and keep the Wisps around. Icequake gave you Thawing Glaciers advantage over most opponents and all your creatures were strong. You avoided anti-Black weapons in subtle ways, especially using their creatures against them. If they were trying to attack you, bringing in Contagion made it exceedingly difficult to fall behind. With the way Thawing Glaciers worked in the format, there was no real disadvantage to not casting spells for the first two turns.
I won my first two matches, then in the third round I faced Elijah Pollack. He was also a junior, and I don’t know why he was at a PTQ in New York City given that he lives in Canada. I played Snow-Covered Swamps, he played Snow-Covered Swamps but he also played Snow-Covered Islands and Drift of the Dead. He could counter my big spells like Soul Burn and especially Mind Warp, then fire back with his own. It was the ultimate nightmare, an opponent playing your deck with the perfect cards for the mirror. The battle was all about a few key spells. We both had them, but then he had counters. I won game two off of Helm of Obedience, but he came back to win game three via standard procedure.
After that loss, I faced a few more opponents against whom my plan worked just fine. I felt that I had a stronger overall deck than Elijah did, because there were few cards that required blue and it took away from the strength of the deck to add a second color. Going into the last round, I still had only the one loss and I faced Matt Wang. He was playing a Blue/Green deck with some odd card choices including Yavimaya Ancients and Binding Grasp, very much a Michael Pistulnik style creation even if I’m misrembering and Mike didn’t build it. He was playing for a top eight slot, I was playing for nothing, but this was before the days when we all decided we had to learn how to determine the “right” winner of such matches. These situations are the reason that you don’t want juniors running around in the general PTQ pool. I won that match too, and having won all but two games during the Swiss I was very much in a position to make the senior top eight if I could have taken the word Junior off of my matchup card.
That turned out to be the way back in for Matt. He was only in tenth position out of all Seniors, eleventh overall. However, the ninth and tenth place finishers did not realize that a Junior was effectively playing for one of the top eight slots. So they both went home, giving up their slots in the top eight. Matt snuck in with two losses, and ended up qualifying. Meanwhile, I proceeded to the Junior top eight a full two matches ahead of second seed Elijah. The quarterfinals were trivial, as there weren’t eight real Junior players. In the semi-finals I faced a Necropotence deck including creatures with Snow-Covered Swampwalk, which seems like it should be trouble but wasn’t because when they play Necropotence in a format that isn’t all that fast you can often just play Withering Wisps and kill them. That’s what I did. That got me back into finals to once again face Elijah. The match went the same way the other one did. He established advantage early in game one and won a very long game many turns later. Game two I managed to win with the Helm of Obedience plan, but game three came down to him countering Mind Warp and then coming back with his own. I’d managed to win every game that day in which I didn’t face Elijah and still lose the qualifier.
Luckily it was a two-slot event. I’d qualified for Dallas. The event was in less than three weeks, and suddenly I needed a deck. I also needed to make it ok for me to go, which meant finding someone willing to fly there with me and make sure I was all right. Parents. What can you do? Luckily, I found someone who agreed to take me along. Guess who it was.
That’s right. Steve OMS. It reminds me of the old stand-up routine where God runs out of actors in the movie of your life: “The store clerk? But I was just the bus driver!” “Put on a hat or something.” I couldn’t make this stuff up, but it did start me thinking: Was that any reason (from a movie script perspective) that Adam and Steve needed to be different people? After all, with all those religious nuts complaining about Adam and Steve, having them as the two most important secondary male characters could get me into needless trouble so what about combining them? Adam’s brother Jarrett could even become Dan. After thinking about it, they do need to be separate. If I know the person taking Steve’s role as too close a friend, then it leads to a lot of hard to answer questions about my relationship with Deadguy, why I was so certain I wasn’t PT-level for so long and several other concerns. It also takes away the mystery, even if it does take care of a dangling plot line. On the other hand, there’s no reason that Donny Ariel and Justin Gary couldn’t be the same person. Donny Ariel was a chess master that went to my high school, and for the longest time I wondered if they were the same person. They look the same, they have the same voice, they’re both gamers. Donny’s catchphrase was “How bad can it be?” and generally he ended up winning. The difference was that Justin had the drive to win, to be a champion, whereas Donny never did. He could have made a run at Chess Nationals, while people like me were trying to end up with a winning record, and instead sort of let it slip away. Then one day I see him on ESPN playing in the WSOP.
I needed a Standard deck, and I needed one fast. At the time I didn’t have one, and Brian David-Marshall provided one. He had been working on a deck for some time, and I decided to base my design on his. It was a Disk/Glaciers/Cantrip deck at its heart, with the theory being that Disk kills everything and your counters are gold so get to them as fast as possible while using Millstone and Jester’s Cap to eventually win. I realized that in the long term you had enough mana to just Fireball people out instead, and that gave the deck far better flexibility. So that’s how I ended up taking…
PT: Dallas Junior Division
“How To Keep an Idiot Busy”
Designed by: Brian David-Marshall and Zvi Mowshowitz
4 Thawing Glaciers
4 Barbed Sextant
4 Urza’s Bauble
4 Loadstone Bauble
4 Lightning Bolt
4 Arcane Denial
4 Nevinyrral’s Disk
1 Feldon’s Cane
1 Ivory Tower
1 Hammer of Bogardan
1 Zuran Orb
One trick this deck often uses is to use Arcane Denial on its own cards. I don’t remember what was in the sideboard, although I do remember I had one Hammer and some copies of Political Trickery. This is what Counter-Hammer looks like if you didn’t realize you could use Hammer and had to go with something cheaper. I had a little inkling, but that was all. With all the cantrips, you generally could get Nevinyrral’s Disk on turn 4 and that was enough to stabilize the board. There were Necropotence decks running around, but this deck was actually fine against them because you could operate without much of a hand and still use your burn to fight them. Against white decks, you could gain serious card advantage off of Flare and Disk and ride that to the win.
I lost the first round, quite possibly missing a chance to Fireball my opponent out by not realizing that if he was dead his creatures didn’t matter much, but rebuilt to get back to 4-2 where I was paired up against Jason Gordon. If you think that you know who the worst cheater was back then, or you think that someone else was Magic’s giant sociopath, you’re wrong. It was Jason. Ask him, he’ll admit it. You can argue back and forth about almost anyone with a shady reputation, but there is one person whose evil credentials are above reproach. This is the man who took lethal damage, waited for his opponent to start picking up his cards and then claim it was a concession. Then when the judge was called, he tried to cast Healing Salve to stay alive, then when it was pointed out that there was a Healing Salve missing from his graveyard said “I mean, this is what I could have done, if I’d had one…” Nothing was below him, and the best part was that he didn’t even hide it.
That didn’t mean that I knew who he was. We’d split two long games, and he was playing a deck similar to mine but with White. Anyone else notice a recurring theme here? Somehow I seem to run into others playing my decks with an additional color for more control. At any rate, I made a mistake sideboarding after game two and he caught me with a Circle of Protection: Red I didn’t think he had. Suddenly I couldn’t win the game. Theoretically I could deck him, but with Hammer involved and no Dissipate in my deck that was never going to happen. At the same time, he wasn’t going to be able to kill me fast enough if I decided not to let him. I didn’t even have to stall. All I had to do was not allow him to speed us up to get the kill in. On top of that, I’m positive that he knew by my reactions that he’d caught me without any Disks. Ethical question time. It’s your first Pro Tour, do you speed up and let him shuffle quickly on Thawing Glaciers knowing that it will cause you to lose a match you could draw by maintaining the pace of the previous forty minutes?
I chose to let the match finish, and he won. In the last round, I faced Feming Chan, another strong player who could have given the Masters division a shot, and I lost that one too to finish at 4-4. I came home out a flight and hotel room with little to show for it, although I knew I could hold my own at the Junior level. I’d have to try and requalify if I wanted to take another shot in the tour’s second year. At the same time, I felt pretty good about things given that I had no real Standard deck three weeks prior. That’s why they give you a lead time before the Tour these days. You need time to prepare.
Next time, I’d have that chance.