Inspired by its inclusion in Mike Flores’s list of the Top 20 Magic articles of all time, I wanted to re-post my report from PT Chicago 2000, where I first earned the nickname “The Dragonmaster”. This article was originally posted on TheDojo and can only be found using the Wayback Machine these days, so I figured I’d give it a place to live in the modern era. I haven’t changed anything in the article, so you can see exactly what I had to say about my emergence on the Magic Pro Tour scene almost 13 years ago.
DRAGONS AND DEEP DISH – Brian Kibler’s Epic Pro Tour Chicago report
When I look back at this year’s PT Chicago, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where the story begins. In a way, I think, it was a story in the making for at least a year, as last year’s Chicago pro tour was the first time in forever that I’d been to a premier tournament, having gone into temporary retirement during my junior and senior years of high school to focus on wrestling. I let myself somehow be convinced by the incomparable Lan D. Ho to go to Chicago the week before my final exams just to hang out and spend some time around the game I’d forsaken for so long, and hopped on a plane to spend four days in the windy city drafting, playing, and watching Magic.
Well, flash forward almost exactly a year, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t eternally grateful that Lan dragged me to that tournament. If I hadn’t shown up at Chicago 99, I can’t say for sure where I’d be right now – and I almost certainly wouldn’t be writing anything like a report about how I got 3rd at a pro tour. After Chicago 99, I started playing again fairly consistently, and qualified for LA, but fell short of making it to Pro Tour Lin Sivvi. Despite this, I worked on decks with what was then Jumble, and felt a sense of accomplishment as a number of people placed highly with decks I’d contributed to. I managed to qualify for Worlds on rating, and chose to skip Nationals because of this, and again worked with Jumble in playtesting, this time picking up Finkel and the OMS brothers as part of the conglomerate. Dan OMS and myself spent countless hours perfecting the Tinker design the majority of the team ran in Brussels, testing and tuning right up until the last minute when I insisted we sideboard the Rising Waters prison package to beat Replenish, and Finkel and the OMS brothers decided Defense Grids weren’t necessary and pulled them entirely. The rest, as they say, is history, with Finkel and Bob Maher meeting in the first mirror-match finals in Worlds history, while I myself settled for a mediocre 62nd place.
Actually, “settled for” is somewhat of a misnomer. I was far from content with my result at Worlds, as I knew for a fact that I’d played the best deck in the tournament (in the standard portion at least), and – despite what I could outwardly claim about bad luck and bad matchups – also knew that my failure to meet my top eight goals was no one’s fault but my own. It seems rare in this game to find people who will admit to losing because they played poorly, or made poor judgment calls in deck construction or draft – it’s always to “top-decking” and “mana screw”, apparently – but that’s exactly what happened to me in a number of my matches at Worlds and the NY Team Pro Tour. I made mistakes and I paid for them. But I admitted those mistakes, and moved on knowing that I would not make them again.
Enter Pro Tour Chicago 2000. Not long before the tournament, I didn’t even think I was going to be qualified to play. In fact, I was fairly certain I wouldn’t make it, as my constructed rating was a mediocre 1950 or so, only good enough for 147th in the world. You might understand my shock and jubulation, then, at returning from a Barenaked Ladies concert one night to find my computer screen covered in messages congratulating me on qualifying through one of the ratings invite slots. I checked the Wizard’s site and, sure enough, there’s my name on the invitation list, having been awarded the third-to-last post-ratings-freeze drop-down slot. Phew. There’s a nail biter for you.
It was then that my playtesting began in earnest. I’d been toying with decks prior to knowing I was invited, but the prospect of playing in a constructed pro tour is motivation like none other. Unlike for New York and Worlds, Jumble didn’t have a mailing list to discuss decks for this event, and our preparation was hurt by a few key members being otherwise occupied and unable to devote their full attentions to deck testing and design. Rubin was busy with the Invitational, Bregoli with his senior year of college, and Lan D. Ho with his life in general (which I do not even attempt to understand). Despite this, I did my best to glean those insights I could from them when they were around, and recruited a cast of unknown numbers to aid me in my quest for the best deck. I’m not going to discuss my playtesting process in detail here, but suffice it to say that coming into the tournament, I expected to sit down across from Fires, Rebels, and Blinding Angel control decks round after round, and The Red Zone was designed as an aggressive deck with the tools to beat them all. In short, when Bregoli asked me a week before the tournament what the deck’s matchups were like against Fires, Rebels, U/W, and U/B, I told him simply “Win, Win, Win, and Win.”
Others, it seemed, were not so confident. Joe Crosby, an Atlanta player with whom I’d agreed to test, said that his results with the deck weren’t nearly up to par with those I was reporting. Rubin, after the few games we got in the week he returned from the Invitational, said he thought my deck was solid, but that he wasn’t sure it was the best option available. Everyone who had access to a copy of the deck seemed to be shying away from it, and I got nervous – maybe they knew something I didn’t. The night before the tournament, I was up until 4 am with Lan D. Ho finalizing our deck choices. We’d been working on a Counter-Rebel design with Rubin and the Kellers, but with insufficient testing behind it, we scrapped the idea and focused on deciding between white and green creature decks, as both of us refused to play a control deck unless it was obviously the most powerful archtype. Lan was insistent upon the power of Rebels, with his design sporting maindeck Blinding Angels to put him over the top against Fires and fourteen searchers to give control decks fits. His vociferous support for the deck had me convinced to the point that I bought the cards from a dealer and went searching for the elusive Ruins of Trokair we planned to play as part of our answer to Flashfires.
A lot of you may say that this is superstitious mumbo-jumbo, and I’d be the first to admit that you’re probably right, but the entire night I was testing decks other than The Red Zone, something just didn’t feel right. Like I told the Sideboard in my interview at the end of the Swiss rounds on day two, before I got to Chicago, I’d had visions of myself attacking with an Armadillo Cloak’d Rith and winning the pro tour. Maybe those were just like any little kid’s dreams of glory – the sort of dreams that lead people to play ridiculous decks with no chance of winning just because they’re “cool”, but there was something different to this, I think. I realized that none of the people who doubted my deck had put in the hundreds of hours and countless games of testing that I had. None of them knew its matchups against every deck in the format as intimately as I did. None of them had agonized over each and every last card in the deck and sideboard like I had. None of them had the faith in dragons that I did. Friday morning, I filled out my deck registration sheet. Deck Designer? Brian Kibler. Deck name? The Red Zone.
As I wrote down my decklist and sleeved my cards at a table with Chris Pikula, Dave Price, and the whole of Team CMU, I was the butt of jokes about playing in the PTQ on Saturday, and I think something about the newly released “Beatdown Box”. I took it in stride, with a smile and a nod, and told them all that this was a format in which how good your deck is depends on how many creatures you play with five power or higher. They all gave me funny looks, and I shuffled up my Blastoderms, Jade Leeches, Ancient Hydras, and Dragons and got ready for the first round.
ROUND 1: David Alexander B/R Control
I always get this feeling when I sit down for the first round of a Pro Tour that’s something like a cross between anxiety and anticipation. This time was no different. I folded out my Worlds playmat, blasted various hip-hop and techno tracks on my discman, and prepared my scorepad with the traditional nomenclature I’ve used for years – Me | The Enemy.
The Enemy this round was a rather quiet fellow by the name of David Alexander, playing a Black/Red control deck seemingly based around Vampiric Tutor, much like the Void decks that were the talk of the internet for a time. I win the die roll and choose the play first, and lead with a turn 1 Llanowar Elf. This is significant because he Dark Rituals out a Chilling Apparition, and I’m able to answer with a River Boa with regeneration mana up. Unfortunately, he Vendettas the Boa and starts stripping cards from my hand with the Apparition. My mana acceleration lets me ramp up to a an Ancient Hydra in short order, which he dispatches with Urza’s Rage, but the second Hydra forces him to Vampiric Tutor and find Shock to kill it. My hand is nearly emptied, but one of the cards is a third Ancient Hydra for which he has no answer, who teams up with my Elf to go all the way.
I haven’t specifically decided on a sideboarding strategy for this matchup, but from the looks of it my Wax/Wanes will be useless and my Kavu Chameleons potentially quite savage. My sideboarding plan is all for naught, however, as David plays land for the first three turns, while I play a Llanowar Elf and Chimeric Idol. With a hand light in threats against a deck with so many board sweeping spells, I decide to go for it on my third turn and Armageddon. He kills my Elf with a Shock, but fails to play a land on the following turn and my Idol ends his misery in short order.
Matches 1-0 Games 2-0
ROUND 2: David Sierra Mu-oz Blue Skies
My second round opponent was David Sierra Mu-oz, playing what appeared to be a Blue Skies deck. Frankly, the match didn’t last long enough for me to learn the details of his design. Game 1 was quick and brutal. My Elves and Birds help me out in recruiting some Blastoderms and Ancient Hydras, and his tiny creatures burn in the 5/1’s fiery breath as my fading monsters tear him apart. I go to my sideboard which – again – doesn’t have anything in particular against his deck, but I figure my Armageddons are pretty poor, and I’m afraid of Bribery, so I take out both dragons (the only time all weekend Rith sat on the bench). This game is a nailbiter, and the first of many instances of what seemed to be my summoning cards to the top of my deck by sheer force of will. I have a River Boa and and an Elf facing down a Rishadan Airship and a Spiketail Hatchlings, and my hand is chock full of 5/1 goodness. The problem is that I don’t have the mana to play my Hydra without it getting countered by the Hatchling, and if I try to wait to draw a land, I’ll lose the race to the Airship. During his turn when he attacks me down to five life, I contemplate what I can draw – and sure enough, my next draw step yields a gold card with one green and one red in the casting cost, and it’s not Yavimaya Barbarian. The Simoon sweeps his board and I unleash my Hydra on the following turn, and soon enough he succumbs to the monstrosity.
Matches 2-0 Games 4-0
Round 3: Andre Kostanzer Nether-Go
Interestingly enough, I played Andre in the third round of the LA pro tour this past season, and there I emerged the victor. After a brutal game one of this match, it seemed like I was going for a repeat, as Andre looked through my graveyard to find three Ancient Hydras as the fourth was on the stack and threatening to resolve. Game two, I went with the anti-control sideboarding plan and pulled the Wax/Wanes and, I believe, one Blastoderm for Obliterate and three Kavu Chameleons. Blastoderm, I’ve found, is treated as if it’s sacrosanct by most people who play it, and they don’t even consider relegating the untargetable beast to the bench. In many matchups, however, Blastoderm becomes almost a liability, as his propensity to quit before the job is done makes him a poor contender against decks with permanent creature control, such as Nether Spirit and Blinding Angel, and, of lesser importance, Story Circle and Teferi’s Moat. In any case, I had a mediocre start in game 2, and Andre quickly gained control with his card drawing. Once I reached eight mana, I stopped bothering to play threats which would obviously get me Undermined out of the game, and built up a tremendous post-Obliterate hand as Andre kept laying land and staring down my Elf and Chimeric Idol with a trio of Nether Spirits. Obliterate never came, however, and Andre eventually knocked my blockers out of the way and forced a third game. I got off to a strong start in game and kept the pressure on as Andre struggled in dealing with my threats. I make a mistake early in playing a River Boa rather than a Chimeric Idol one turn, leaving myself open to a devastating Perish, but managed to recover quickly enough to keep Andre on the ropes. He was hiding behind a Nether Spirit to my Kavu Chameleon and Chimeric Idol who beat him down to 2 life when I tossed a second Chamleon into the fray with plenty of mana open to make them any color of the rainbow. Andre taps a black and five and plays one of the two cards left in his hand, naming “Kavu”, and sweeps my offense. The other card is an Accumulated Knowledge for four, and with less than five minutes left on the clock, Andre suddenly goes into turbo-aggression mode. I oblige, despite the fact that I could easily play for a draw without stalling, and fail in my attempt to remain undefeated both in the tournament and against Andre.
Matches 2-1 Games 5-2
ROUND 4: Darwin Kastle U/B Merfolk/Crypt Angel Madness
By this point in the tournament everyone’s heard about Darwin’s crazy creation, and I’m far from displeased with the matchup. Though I wasn’t certain of Darwin’s exact decklist, I was certain that he couldn’t have the aggressive alternative casting cost counters Blue Skies decks could muster, and a creature base chock full of low toughness Merfolk and Airships is easy pickings for my four Ancient Hydras. Game one went as expected, as I play out a Blastoderm and Darwin counters with what seems to be a good answer in a pair of Vodalian Zombies, but Ancient Hydra is unimpressed and unfazed by the puny Protection from Green fish and blows them out of the water, with the 5/5 beast at his side picking up the pieces. Game two isn’t much different, although I play all non-basic lands until turn 6 or so in order to play around a potential Submerge. When I’m racing a Vodalian Zombie with River Boa and add an Ancient Hydra to the equation, Darwin decides to slow the bleeding with a Jolting Merfolk. On my next turn, after Jolting Merfolk taps my legions of doom, I add a black with my City of Brass and find five other mana lying around somewhere, and decide it would be a good idea to name “Merfolk”. Darwin’s board is cleared, and his hand reveals a trio of Perishes and a Lord of Atlantis. My Boa meets a grisly death on Darwin’s next turn, and Lord of Atlantis comes down in a futile attempt to slow my Ancient Hydra, but a second – and non-Perishable, I might add – 5/1 monster hits the table, and a few turns later I’ve avenged my Jackal Pups and Mogg Fanatics for their loss at the hands of Darwin’s Living Death deck in LA3.
Matches 3-1 Games 7-2
ROUND 5 Erno Ekebom Counter-Rebels
Oddly enough, in LA this year I when I played Andre in round three, I also played Erno in round five. Just like Andre turned the tables around on me this time, I thought it’d be a good time to do the same to Erno. The first two games are somewhat of a blur – I know in game 1 Erno had a land-light draw and I made him pay for it with Rishadan Port and perhaps Armageddon, and in game 2 I couldn’t find a threat or Decree and fell before the onslaught of the rebellion. Game 3 was strange – I played a turn 2 River Boa, and realized that, barring Wrath of God, Erno had NO way to kill the little islandwalking beast. Interestingly, Finkel and I discussed this same point about Kamiel’s deck before the quarterfinals on Sunday – the “attack ten times with River Boa” plan is actually surprisingly viable against Counter-Rebel and is, in my opinion, a significant hole in the design. Unfortunately, River Boa was only able to get in eight attacks against Erno, while I was forced to play out much of my hand to keep from dying to his rebel horde. As Erno got Lin-Sivvi going and found two Parallax Waves for my River Boa and the rest of my blockers, the game seemed to be slipping away. However, Erno was at a precarious two life courtesy of my slithering friend and his Adarkar Wastes, and my barrage of threats had whittled down his hand size. With six lands in play and one in my hand, I sent waves of karmic energy to my deck, and it rewarded me with everyone’s favorite 5/1. Two fading counters later, the match was mine.
Matches 4-1 Games 8-3
ROUND 6 Adam Prokopin Counter-Rebels
I originally sat down for round six across from Morgan Douglass, who I knew to be a friend of Brock Parker’s and playing his nearly monoblue control deck, an absolute nightmare for The Red Zone. Fortune smiled on me yet again, however, as a problem with the pairings (oddly enough, resulting from Brock’s disqualification from the tournament) made them re-pair the round, and I found myself across from a name I recognized from IRC, Adam Prokopin playing Counter-Rebels. Unfortunately, game one passed without my seeing any of the “Counter” part of his Counter-Rebel deck, as Adam drew nothing but plains and I worked him over with green monsters, and probably an Ancient Hydra for good measure. This caused me to missideboard for the second game, and when Adam played a turn one Coaster Tower, the Portal edition Flashfires in my opening hand stared back at me mockingly. I’d kept a mediocre hand in this game due to mana acceleration and the Flashfires which I expected to wreck him, but a second Coastal Tower, an Island, and an Adarkar Wastes later, I was kicking myself for the decision. Adam got Lin-Sivvi going despite my Ancient Hydra’s best efforts, and I Flashfired away the Plains he eventually did play, but it was for naught as I was quickly overwhelmed. The Flashfires went back to the board for game three, and my opening hand this game was exactly what you want to see against Rebel decks – white and black cards, along with big green creatures. I think it was Jade Leech who led the charge, and backed up by the mandate of a fellow with some funny name that starts with “T” – his Decree, if you will – it wasn’t long before the game was over.
Matches 5-1 Games 9-4
Round 7 Ben Ronaldson Rebels
Sitting down across from Ronaldson, who I knew by reputation alone, I felt like I had something to prove. You see, Randy Buehler wrote in one of his preview articles for Pro Tour Chicago that Ben is “one of the most important people in the Magic world right now” as a result of his deckbuilding accomplishments for Pro Tour New York, European Nationals, and the World Championships. I think that my deckbuilding had a bit of an impact on those tournaments, as well, and nowhere in the Chicago previews was my name to be found. This, then, was a sort of Grudge Match for me, even if Ben didn’t know it, although it certainly didn’t show in the atmosphere of our match. Ben was friendly and talkative, and a pleasure to play against – and beat.
Game one started like a textbook game against Rebels – play monsters, cast Armageddon. The problem was that Ben apparently hadn’t read the book, or had at least forgotten to do his homework, because he didn’t seem to realize that he was supposed to lose at that point, and kept drawing lands while I couldn’t recover for the life of me I sat for countless turns with the same one land and two mana creatures I had when I cast the geddon, while Ben got Lin-Sivvi going and smashed my face. The second game was much more interesting, and I’m not just saying that because I won. Ben played a turn two Meekstone, and if I hadn’t been trying to keep a poker face, I’m sure my jaw would have dropped to the floor. In sideboarding for the anti-rebel plan, I’d pulled all of my Chimeric Idols for Decrees and Flashfires, and was left with nothing but lowly Llanowar Elves and River Boas in my deck who could attack under the Meekstone and still untap. I mentally switched gears into lava-axe mode, recognizing that I needed to hit Ben with four of my creatures once each, and ground in for a long game. I managed to get in a hit with a Blastoderm, who promptly faded away, before Ben could get his rebel chain going, but because of his Meekstone, his primary win condition – Ramosian Sky Marshall – couldn’t effectively attack. I built up a solid ground defense with a pair of Jade Leeches, and when Ben started picking away at my life total with a Defiant Falcon, I dropped Rith for the first time all tournament. We played draw-go for a few turns while Ben recruited an armada of Defiant Falcons to give him a means to punch damage through that he could easily recurse with Lin-Sivvi. While Ben was contemplating his options during his turn, I said, “You know Ben, it doesn’t really matter what you do. My top card is going to be very, very good.”
I don’t know why I said it; it just jumped into my head and came right out. But Ben said go, and I drew a card with text not unlike “Target player slumps in his chair, looks at the board, and loudly asks “Why did none of my teammates tell me about this card?” Ben chose to follow the instructions on my Tsabo’s Decree, and it was on to game three. The final game of the match proved to be rather anti-climactic, as my sideboard showed up in full effect, with a turn 3 Flashfires leaving Ben with only a Dust Bowl for land, and a turn 4 Rith looking much more impressive than his Chimeric Idol. As Ben sat in thought, I tipped my hand of two Tsabo’s Decrees, and he showed me the Wrath of God he had just a few too few lands to cast.
Matches 6-1 Games 11-5
Here the action stops, as it always does, because day one is over. Finkel is somehow undefeated as always, and the cast of characters in my bracket going into day 2 has me very excited about my prospects. Dirk Baberowski has been compiling a list of each player’s decktype, and I’m amused to find the description of “GRWB Fattie-Geddon-Decree” next to my name. In any case, I go out to eat with the CMU crowd, and we get a waitress who talks so fast she sounds like she’s in training to be an auctioneer. We explain why we’re in Chicago, and tell her that Turian and I are both in contention to win up to 30,000$ in the next two days. She jokes about us paying for dinner, and I sorta laugh it off, not even really considering that I could very well be taking that kind of money home with me. I head back to the Motel Six I’m sharing with Lan, Crosby, and Lan’s friend CJ, and get as good a night’s sleep as I can, despite my perpetual cough keeping me up into the wee hours of the night.
ROUND 8: Randy Davis Fires w/ Vine Trellis
I show up at the site early Saturday morning ready to crush my opponent’s dreams with five power creatures, and was somewhat annoyed when I found my first round pairing to be against the only person in my bracket Dirk didn’t have a scouting report on. That was of little to no concern, however, when Randy played a first turn Forest, and I inwardly smiled, thinking of the four as-yet unused Armadillo Cloaks waiting for him in my sideboard. Randy played out two Vine Trellises in the first few turns (which I later found out from his decklist on the Sideboard were the only two in his deck), which made my Ancient Hydra mana-denial plan much less effective. I did manage to get some monsters into play and Armageddon several times, trying to keep him below Saproling Burst mana despite his Birds and walls. After the third Armageddon, Randy looked at my graveyard in disgust, and my five power army marched to victory. The second game was much less pretty for my team, as despite a Simoon on my part, Randy managed to ramp up to five mana in short order, and dropped multiple Saproling Bursts directly on my head, or at least it felt that way.
The third game was a very complicated one, and I managed to win despite a potentially fatal mistake because Randy failed to capitalize on my error. In a midgame sporting an pair of Elves and a Boa on my side of the board and a Chimeric Idol staring them down, Randy threatened to break the stalemate open with an Ancient Hydra. He attacked, I double blocked with a summoning sick Elf and the Boa, and when he tried to kill the Elf with the Hydra, I pumped it up with a Wax, tapping the last of my lands. Not realizing the untapped blocking Elf was summoning sick, Randy assigned to it all of the Idol’s damage, allowing me to keep my otherwise-doomed Boa. I responded with an Ancient Hydra of my own while he was tapped out, and mowed town his entire team, leaving him with nothing but heaps of land. Randy played another Idol on his turn, and I played a Blastoderm. Randy had no answer, and I started to beat with the Derm as the Hydra faded out and I tapped out to play another to replace it, as well as an Elf. This was my potentially game-losing mistake, as I realized during Randy’s turn when I counted his nine total mana sources. Sure enough, he played out Fires and Burst, and, if he made four tokens and attacked with them all and the Idol, and sacrificed the Fires to pump one of them up, I would be reduced to one life with a City of Brass as my only white source to cast the Wax that was in my hand, mocking me for tapping out to play a useless Llanowar Elf. I could block with both the Elf and my Hydra to stay at four, but that would decimate my entire offense. Randy doesn’t seem to realize this, and as he sits in thought for a long time, I say “You can’t kill me this turn”, hoping to throw him off and force him to play conservatively. He responds with “I know”, and I’m almost certain I’ve won. Sure enough, he removes two tokens from the Burst and attacks with two 5/5s, and I happily take the damage, going down to four, untap, Wax his Burst, and attack for the win.
Matches 7-1 Games 13-6
ROUND 9: Kamiel Cornelissen Counter-Rebels
Everyone knows by now that Kamiel was playing Counter-Rebels, and as his is the third deck of this kind I’ve played against, I’m sure most people can guess the results. The first game was actually extremely tight, with my Ancient Hydras holding off his searchers long enough for me to push the last few points of damage with a Wax off the top. The second game was rather brutal, with my Kavu Chameleons pounding on him for a while until he managed to set up Lin Sivvi and threaten Defiant Vanguard recursion. It was not to be, however, as he tapped down to two blue in my end step one turn, and I ported one. He had no responses, but I certainly did, as I targeted him with everyone’s favorite black instant, revealing a hand of Dismantling Blow (useless, as I’d boarded out my Idols), Rout, and Jhovall Queen. The 4/7 went to the graveyard, along with his entire army, and he was forced to Rout my Chameleon on his following turn, leaving him with no counter mana up (in the event that he’d drawn one) to stop the MVP of the weekend, a certain 5/1 red creature, who brought the game to a dramatic close post-haste. As an amusing anecdote, I started to sign the slip with a match score of two games to one, and Kamiel stopped me, pointing out that we’d only played two games. Confused, I started shuffling for a third, but he politely informed me that I’d won both of them. Game one was THAT close.
Matches 8-1 Games 15-6
ROUND 10: Jon Finkel G/R/w Fires
This match has apparently become the icon of the Chicago pro tour, and I can’t say that I mind. Jon and I knew we’d likely be playing each other this round, as he was still undefeated at 9-0 and I was one of the few 8-1 players he had yet to face, and we went to the feature match area as soon as the round was announced. Many people – including the ESPN interviewers – have asked me what it was like to beat the player most people consider (and rightly so) to be the best ever to have played the game. My answer has been, and remains – I’m getting used to it. I’ve played Jon three times in premier level events: US Nationals 97, LA3, and now Chicago 2000, and my record against him is a perfect 3-0. Now, if I could somehow channel that into beating all of my OTHER opponents, I’d be nigh unstoppable.
Jon knew his prospects weren’t good, as he was playing almost an exact copy of Chris Pikula’s State championship deck, which I’d tested against extensively with The Red Zone. When we went to sit down, Jon asked me “Who wins this matchup? You, right?” and all I could do is smile and agree. Sometimes Finkel can defy the logic of deck matchups, but this time it was not to be so. Coverage of this match can be found at The Sideboard, but I’ll give you a little something here too. The first game wasn’t particularly close, as we both came out quickly, but I had far too many threats for Jon to handle. That’s The Red Zone’s general game plan against Fires decks – generally, I play far more large creatures in the slots where they have Saproling Burst and Fires of Yavimaya, and while there are cheap, efficient answers to Burst and Fires in Wax/Wane and Aura Mutation, there is no such easy way to deal with a Jade Leech. I drew out Finkel’s Ancient Hydra this game before playing my own, and, knowing Finkel had only two in his deck, played a second with impunity after my first 5/1 sent his to the graveyard. A pair of Jade Leeches later and it was on to game two.
Game two has apparently gone down in Magic legend. Jon had a quick start with an Elf and a River Boa, but when he attacked with his Elf on his second turn instead of holding it back for regeneration mana, I seized the opportunity to clear his board with Simoon. A second River Boa met the same fate, and when Jon played a Blastoderm on turn six, I answered with the almighty Rith the Awakener. Jon swung on his turn, and I let the beast through, a play that looked so much better after he dropped an Ancient Hydra with one mana open. On my next turn I became the hero of kids everywhere, as I decided a 6/6 flying dragon of doom just wasn’t big enough, and Armadillo Cloaked Rith and sent him into the red zone to drain Jon for eight, putting myself back up to a healthy twenty life. Jon untapped, drew his card, and shook his head, conceding under the onslaught of every twelve year olds’ dream come true.
Matches 9-1 Games 17-6
ROUND 12: Mike Pustilnik G/R/W Fires
Mike and I sat down at a deserted table one, as apparently we weren’t an interesting enough matchup to feature, while all of the tables in our vicinity were empty. I’d heard a lot about Mike’s deck, and while most people described it as “Bad Fires”, I’d have to say that I agree with a large part of Mike’s card choices. Ghitu Fire is much better than people give it credit for, providing an early answer to Sergeant and mana creatures, as well as a way to remove Blinding Angel and a late-game x-spell straight to the dome, and his four sideboard Simoons scared me more than anything else I’d faced so far in the entire tournament. Mike pointed out that I’d played him once before, in the semifinals of one of the US Opens in 1997, and beaten him, and I pointed out that we’d also played in LA this year, and I’d pulled that one out as well. I had no plans of cutting the streak short now, and declined Mike’s offer to spread my playmat over his side of the table – the only time I’d done that all weekend was against Andre Kostanzer in round 3, and while I’m not usually superstitious, I saw no reason to change anything that’d been going well for me at this point.
Game one was extremely close, and involved a lot of creatures being thrown around and trading on both sides. Mike drew multiple Earthquakes and was able to force damage past my River Boas, and on his last turn, took a point of damage from his Karplusan Forest to put him down to one and tapped just enough mana to Ghitu Fire me out. Game one to the x-spell. I’d been told beforehand my Mark Schick, I believe, that Mike sideboarded four Simoons, and this forced me to be creative in my sideboarding, as I pulled Ancient Hydras for the first time all weekend. The details of the early game are rather fuzzy, because it’s hard for me not to be mentally fixed on the last few turns. Suffice it to say that on my final attack phase of the game, an Armadillo Cloak’d Rith entered the red zone, and Mike chumped with a Bird of Paradise. My exact words at this point were “I’ll assign one to the Bird, seven to you, make nine saprolings, you go to one, I go to thirty-five. Go!” I’ll leave it up to the reader to determine the outcome of that game.
The third game was a nailbiter, as Mike was going first and I drew an opening hand with two Birds of Paradise and a Llanowar Elf, but only a single Forest. Knowing Mike has four Simoons in his deck at this point, I agonize over whether or not to paris, but eventually decide that going second with an unknown six-card hand would likely be equally if not more fatal if he DOES have a Simoon, as my deck needs to get up to four mana quickly to contend with his threats. Mike has no turn one drop, and I play a Bird. Mike plays a turn two Boa, and I have yet to draw a second land, and play another Bird and Elf. “Simoon me, Mike,” I say, and he shakes his head and I know I’m safe. Mike plays out another Boa, and I notice immediately that he has no source of red mana. I take the opportunity to Armageddon, assuring that he won’t be able to cast Simoon to destroy my mana base for at least another two turns. Mike fails to play another land, and attacks with his Boas, and I take the damage, untap, and cast a Simoon of my own, clearing his board of permanents entirely. I play a River Boa and say go, and Mike finally draws a Mountain. It hardly matters at this point, though, because I Armadillo Cloak my Boa and turn my team sideways, following up the next turn with a Blastoderm. With eleven points of creature damage (four of it Spirit Linked) coming his way on my next turn, Mike concedes and reveals the Simoon that was in his opening hand that he just never had the mana to cast. Sometimes you just feel like you’re meant to win.
Matches 10-1 Games 19-7
ROUND 12 Kai Budde Rebels
At this point I’m almost assured a spot in day three, as I’m in sole possession of first place at 10-1. Low and behold, I end up with a feature match with Kai Budde, and I’m feeling even better about my chances, as I know he’s playing Rebels. This match is also covered on The Sideboard, but it was much less interesting than the match against Finkel, so I’ll let that coverage speak mostly for itself. In game one I mulliganed (which seems to be my eternal fate against Kai, as evidenced in the semi-finals) and got off to a slow start with no creature mana and no Armageddon, and was simply unable to keep up with the recruiting power of Lin Sivvi. Game two was quite the opposite, and I crushed Kai with a barrage of enormous monsters and Flashfires to keep him from searching. Game three was a heartbreaker, and set the stage for the semifinals. I played out a number of mana creatures to Kai’s Defiant Falcon, and Armageddoned, playing a Jade Leech the following turn, and a River Boa the turn after. At this point, Kai had no chance but to ramp directly to four mana and cast Wrath of God, which looked unlikely as he missed a land drop almost immediately after my Armageddon. With two Tsabo’s Decrees in my hand and Kai at a precariously low life total, there was no chance for me to lose this game unless Kai had at least two chump blockers that cost two or less, drew three lands in his next four turns, AND I didn’t draw an Armageddon, Flashfires, or a single land to cast Decree and seal his fate. As it happened, Kai pealed the lands he needed and I drew nothing of consequence, and Steadfast Guard and Ramosian Sergeant jumped in the way of my Jade Leech to buy Kai the time to Wrath of God, clearing my board and leaving me with two land as my only permanents. Sometimes you’re just not meant to win.
Matches 10-2 Games 20-9
ROUND 13 Jay Elarar Skies Draw
Matches 10-2-1 Games 20-9
ROUND 14 Robert Dougherty Fires Draw
Matches 10-2-2 Games 20-9
Well, not quite, but yet again the action stops as day two grinds to a close. At this point in any other pro tour for me, it would have been time to go out to eat with my friends who made top eight (with them paying, of course) and come back to draft late into the night. This time, however, I was actually playing on day three, and I don’t think this really sunk in until late that night. Even when Kim Eikefet was profiling me between rounds, or when I was being interviewed by the ESPN folks, I still didn’t realize just what was going on. Even now, writing this, I don’t know if it’s really sunk in yet. I went from qualifying for Chicago by the skin of my teeth, nearly maxing out my credit card to pay for my flight and hotel (the glamorous Motel 6), and not being qualified for anything to being a Pro-Tour Semifinalist, along with everything that entails. It’s hard to believe that I’ll be going to every pro tour and most of the Grand Prix this season, and that I’ll be paying for it with the $15,000 check I got from Chicago. As (formerly) a financially struggling college student, that’s an almost inconceivable dream to me, but soon enough I’ll be living that dream.
Anyway, that night I went out to eat with Rubin, Lan, Mark Schick, Ken Ho, and another San Francisco player by the name of DJ. We made an attempt to go to the Chicago Chophouse, but the prospect of an hour and a half wait when it was already getting pretty late sent us back to Stetson’s steakhouse at the hotel. Ben and I discussed my sideboard strategy against Zvi for the first round, and decided that despite how powerful they are in the matchup (and in general), I should sideboard out my Ancient Hydras, as Zvi’s plan is to up his Earthquake count and try to win by attacking my mana. This makes Chimeric Idols more important as early blockers, as well as making Ancient Hydra less powerful, as he’ll have up to eight removal spells for it in his deck. Unfortunately, my credit card is just about maxed and my bank account is virtually empty, so I’m unable to pay for the meal as tradition dictates. I’ll get you next time.
As for the title of this little segment, I’m going to have to give a short explanation. At almost every tournament I go to, I bring my discman and one of the mix CDs Lan has made me over the years, and listen to it (generally at an eardrum-unfriendly volume) between rounds. In Chicago, I blasted Prodigy’s “Minefields” as I sat down for nearly every match, which served as quite the soundtrack for the beatings administered throughout the weekend. After crashing in Rubin and Mark Schick’s room that evening (as our Motel 6 was booked – thanks guys), I woke up Sunday morning and, with “This is dangerous!” reverberating in my head, made my way downstairs to play in the quarterfinals.
After our meeting with Mark Rosewater (where we got our top 8 hats – only eight in the world, and none of them fit me!) and preliminary photo shoot outside the Hyatt, it was time to get down to business. Despite the fact that I was already guaranteed thousands of dollars, I had to borrow 10$ from Finkel when the two of us ran to grab food before the quarterfinals started. We discussed general strategy and sideboarding for our matchups, wished each other good luck, and sat down to start the rounds that decided who would be PT Chicago champ, and who would get em’ next time.
QUARTERFINALS Zvi Mowshowitz Two-Head Fires
Sitting down across the table from Zvi, I didn’t feel the sort of nerves I was expecting going into the quarterfinals of a pro tour. We were playing an ante match of enormous proportions, with the additional factor of pro tour points and simple glory at stake. The night before at Stetson’s, Jessica from Wizards had told me she’d arranged for Zvi to get a haircut before the top 8 started, and that she didn’t want her work to go to waste. I figured that compared to having my pretty face on camera, all the Magic makeovers in the world were irrelevant, and resolved myself to letting her down.
I’d played this matchup dozens, maybe hundreds of times in testing, and despite some of the differences between Zvi’s version and the one’s I’d played so many games against, this match felt like little more than a playtest session. Zvi and I were friendly and relaxed throughout the match, joking with each other a bit, and kept the mood light despite the implications of the games we were playing. The Sideboard’s coverage of this match is excellent, and manages to catch most of the important details of the games, but I’ll just give a run through of each. Game one was the must-win game for Zvi, and he lost it. In a matchup played three out of five, sideboard cards obviously become tremendously more important, and the sheer ability of Armadillo Cloak to win games almost by itself means that Zvi can’t go into the games against them with a deficit. Zvi didn’t get the draws he needed, and I did, and we went to the boards.
I tossed my Armadillo Cloaks in the middle of the table first thing, more trying to amuse the crowd than to intimidate Zvi in any way, but I think my air of confidence and non-chalance may have actually had him a bit rattled, as some of his plays seemed less-than-optimal in the face of a difficult matchup. Game two, the deciding moment came when Zvi attempted “The Bluff”, sending his Jade Leech headlong into the jaws of my freshly cast dragon. I called it, and blocked, partly because I truly believed Zvi didn’t have the Assault to finish off my pretty gold pet, and partly because if I let the Leech through, my life total would drop precariously low and I would be within easy range of an Earthquake-backed assault. Rith went on to win the game, as a shaken Zvi failed to block an additional creature with his Two-Heads the turn it traded with my dragon (a Kodak moment, everyone felt), leaving himself open to lethal damage the following turn.
Game three was textbook Fires against a struggling opponent. I had few early plays, and Zvi had the nuts, playing out Fires and Leech before I had a non-land permanent. Little I could afford to play at that point could swing the game, and we went on to game four. Our early plays this game ran into one another, keeping the board mostly clear and occasionally taking a bite out of each other’s life totals. Around turn eight, perhaps, I had a Blastoderm that had gotten in one attack to Zvi’s Chimeric Idol and Llanowar, when I played Rith and kept my Blastoderm back to block. Many people were somewhat confused by my beast’s reluctance to attack, so here’s the explanation: if Zvi played Saproling Burst on his turn (with Fires of Yavimaya in play) and made three or less creatures to attack, I would be forced to block with at least one creature to stay alive, and this would allow him to use his Fires and token to kill my dragon. With Armadillo Cloak in my hand, I saw no reason to let Rith die just yet, as I’m almost guaranteed to win the game if I’m able to survive long enough to Cloak him up. As it was, Zvi didn’t play a Burst and my Blastoderm simply spent a turn fading away, but on my next main phase I loudly announced that I would “add one green, one white, and one other to my pool, and wish you good luck!” as I slammed the Armadillo Cloak down on everyone’s favorite dragon. Eight point saproling-generating Drain Lifes are hard to overcome, and Zvi didn’t manage to pull it out, extending his hand and sending me to the semifinals
At this point, I was in a bit of a dream state, I think. Kai had won his quarterfinal matchup against Elarar, and I couldn’t believe it. The night before I (along with many others) had predicted that if Kai beat Jay, I would win the pro tour. Playing three out of five games against a Rebel deck with three Tsabo’s Decree and two Flashfires in the sideboard (to his sixteen plains, more than I’d seen all weekend against Counter-Rebels) seemed like anything but a losing proposition, and after getting my makeup done to play on stage and exchanging a bit of friendly trash talk with Kai, it was time to face the music.
SEMIFINALS Kai Budde Rebels
Everyone knows how this ends, and I’m sure everyone knows that I wish it had been otherwise, so I’m not going to bother with a recap, but merely my thoughts. Seeing the ESPN2 show of the finals didn’t make it sting any less, and I’m not sure exactly how to explain what happened. The working explanation is that my draws were poor and Kai’s were very good, and I couldn’t put together anything to work with to stop him. While this is definitely true, I can’t help but wonder if I could have done something differently. In a way, I think, I didn’t really believe I could win. Sure, I’d been running around loudly declaring “I’m winning this pro tour!” but I’m not sure I actually realized the ramifications of what I was saying. Winning the pro tour meant winning every match from the quarters on out, and somewhere between the start of my match with Zvi and the end of my match with Kai, I lost sight of that and started thinking of excuses. “Well, I mulliganed in two of the games,” or “He just got amazing draws against me.” That may be true, but I also threw away an Elf that could have made the difference in game one. It wouldn’t have, but it theoretically could have, and I blew it in game three by misnaming my creature type with Tsabo’s Decree, killing his Mageta but leaving Lin-Sivvi in his hand. He drew another Lin off the top, so my mistakes didn’t matter in the outcome of the games, but I just wasn’t playing to win the entire time I was up there. Down 1-0, I was disheartened. Down 2-1, I was getting ready to accept third place.
Mike Long told me beforehand to “Just go up there and play to win the tournament,” and I insisted I would, and that I did, but looking back on it he was right. I let myself get complacent, and I lost the will to win that had pulled me through so many games all weekend. It sounds like more of my superstitious mumbo-jumbo about playing with dragons, but I only lost when I stopped believing I could win. From here on out, I’m never going to stop believing again.
WotC and Richard Garfield in particular, for creating a game that’s shaping up to be both my job and my favorite hobby
Lan D. Ho, for dragging me back into Magic, for mix CDs, for advice about Magic and everything else.
Ben Rubin, for drilling the power of Ancient Hydra into my head so much that I became a bigger believer than he ever was, and for being tight as hell
Mike Flores, for being a savage beating, despite not realizing the power of five power creatures
Dan Bridy, Josh Ravitz, Peter Szigeti, Joe Crosby, and everyone else who let me throw The Red Zone at whatever decks they could muster
Jon Finkel, for never losing. Except to me.
MikeyP, for Ghitu Fire, and knowing the power of Simoon
Mouth, for believing in The Red Zone, and taking Rith to the top of the YMG Grudge Match
Chris Pikula, for being an all around good guy and quite the card to boot
All of my opponents, for being good sports and good competitors
Everyone who’s congratulated me and asked me to sign Riths, for making this all the much sweeter than it already is
Everyone back on the home front – my ATO brothers, for putting up with my gaming, Hirsch, for generally being tight, despite his lack of dedication to gaming, Tara, for putting up with my ramblings about dragons and late nights on the computer – I was right, though, wasn’t I? – along with Alicia and Mindy, for the warm welcome back, and all the rest – for keeping up with my progress and making me realize that, despite the mockery, you really do care…
Thanks for reading, if you made it this far. No slops, except those already mentioned, and those were mainly for myself – it’s hard to find low points when everything goes your way. Stay tuned for more articles from me in the future, both here and on The Sideboard. Until then – Rith4L.