Bringing the Magic to Us: The Randy Buehler Story

Posted in Feature on December 26, 2016

By Corbin Hosler

It's one of the most-viewed Magic clips in history—nearly a million views—and likely the most-loved. It was the match of the year, the topdeck of the century, and Magic's most famous call.

The scene is Pro Tour Honolulu 2006. Craig Jones squaring off against Olivier Ruel in the semifinals. Tied 2-2, the pair are locked in the midst of a tense Game 5, and Ruel has established a dominating board state over Jones, though the Englishman does have a Char in hand to use how he sees fit. As Ruel's attacks rumble in, Jones goes deep into thought. When he comes out of the tank, his mind is made up.

"Char you," Jones says confidently.

What follows is the moment that made the Pro Tour, and the call that made a career.

Ten years later, the Pro Tour is returning to Honolulu for Pro Tour Kaladesh, an event sure to excite millions watching around the world, even in the shadow of that historic moment.

But there is one thing that will be missing in Hawaii.

Randy Buehler was introduced to the Magic world in college, when he and his now-wife Del (now R&D's principal editor) met Eric Lauer (now Magic's head developer) at a Two-Headed Giant tournament in 1997. Buehler quickly proved adept at the game, and it wasn't long before he made his first Pro Tour appearance in October of 1997.

And what an appearance it was. Buehler made the most of the opportunity, defeating David Mills three games to one in the finals, igniting a professional career that was cut short due to Buehler being hired by Wizards of the Coast. He had racked up five Top 16 finishes and a win in just twelve appearances before taking up office in Renton.

Randy Buehler exploded onto the Pro Tour with a win at Pro Tour Chicago in 1997.

Buehler's accomplishments during his abbreviated career on the Pro Tour have been well-documented, and it was enough to earn Buehler inclusion in the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.

It also was enough to catch the eye of one Mark Rosewater. Known now as Magic's head designer and possibly the most enthusiastic Wizard in history, Rosewater was then wearing a very different hat: he was trying to piece together a fledgling coverage team with little experience and even fewer resources.

Randy Buehler grew up in a family of storytellers. When he was a child, his mother and father moved the family to a small town in the mountains of east Tennessee to take over the Polk County News, a small newspaper in a small town. Buehler's first experience reporting came covering high school football games, and the family business taught him the importance of telling the right story. It's a trait he would carry throughout his life, and one that drew Rosewater's attention immediately.

"I was the guy who put him in the booth," Rosewater said with more than a hint of pride when asked about those early days. "In the very early days I did play-by-play, and I would just grab pros who were in that Pro Tour but not the Top 8 to do coverage. Back then my go-to team was Brian Weissman and Chris Pikula, but when Worlds 1998 came along, I realized I was going to miss Sunday due to my sister's wedding, so I knew I had to set everything up in advance. I thought Randy showed some potential, so I asked him to be the backup if one of those guys made Top 8."

As it happened, Pikula did advance to the elimination rounds. That left a wide-open hole in Top 8 coverage that was bound for the ESPN airwaves, and Buehler was ecstatic but nervous to fill it.

"I had no idea what I was doing—obviously I stayed up way too late Saturday night drafting," Buehler recalled. "I was confident I could do it, but I was also a little bit overwhelmed. It was easy to think about doing commentary, but then when you're in the booth and responsible for carrying a conversation, it is way harder than you imagined.

"I didn't get a very long stint, either. Chris lost in the quarterfinals and replaced me, and I remember I left thinking 'I should have been better than that.' I just wanted another shot."

Fortunately for Buehler, Rosewater liked him enough to bring him back. From that point on, Buehler left the floor and entered the booth whenever he fell out of contention—"The Luis Scott-Vargas of the '90s," as he put it—and his second career was born.

Buehler would go on to work for Wizards of the Coast and take on a host of responsibilities that weren't simply playing Magic, but he always remained a mainstay in the coverage arena, and even those around for the entire ride struggle to put into words just how much Buehler meant to making Magic the game it is today for both players and spectators.

Brian David-Marshall is known as the boisterous New Yorker who brings the Pro Tour into your home. An innovator of coverage and mainstay of the webcast for the past decade, "BDM" brings a wealth of knowledge about the game's history to the camera.

He would never have been there if not for Buehler.

"I was doing text coverage in 2003 and historically I was very uncomfortable speaking in public, but for whatever reason Randy kept trying to get me into the booth," David-Marshall said. "I knew Randy a little bit, but he was also a little bit of an intimidating figure—this Pro Tour Champion and head of R&D. I wasn't sure I would be able to do it."

With Buehler's encouragement, David-Marshall did take the leap. Pro Tour Nagoya in 2005 was his first event in the booth with Buehler, and Magic coverage is better because of it. Deck techs, end-of-day wrap-ups, early YouTube clips; all are taken for granted today but wouldn't exist without the BDM-Buehler pairing.

Buehler and BDM got in the booth together for Pro Tour Nagoya in 2005, and Magic coverage hasn't been the same since.

It was just one of the many strides coverage took under Buehler's direction after he began overseeing the area in the late '90s.

"Randy's fingerprints are all over coverage today, and I don't think people realize how much we owe to Randy from those days," David-Marshall said. "Every time you hear someone say 'It's in the books' or 'Hello and welcome to,' you realize how much even of the vocabulary we use exists thanks to his knowledge.

"His biggest contribution was being someone who was legitimately great at Magic but who also understood the entertainment component of talking about Magic. Talking about making the statistically correct play and drawing to your outs is a lot less exciting than jumping out of your chair screaming, but Randy inherently understood that it's a bunch of pieces of cardboard on the table, and he created that excitement about what the next card would be. He templated making Magic coverage exciting, and you can hear an echo of him in the booth in every single person who does coverage."

Nothing better illustrates that skill than the finals of Pro Tour Chicago in 1999. As Bob Maher met Brian Davis in an epic five-game final, the games grew complicated and difficult to follow. At least, they would have if not for Buehler's steadied commentary guiding the audience along as "the Great One" took down the title in a match that both Rosewater and David-Marshall point to as a defining, formative moment for the best way to cover Magic.

When Pro Tour Kaladesh kicks off in Honolulu next week, Buehler won't be there. After a career that spanned a full two decades, he made the decision to retire earlier this year. As a commentator, Buehler has been there for most of the essential moments in Magic's history. From his first nervous appearance in Chicago to Maher's victory there a year later, from the Lightning Helix heard 'round the world and Gabriel Nassif's called-shot Cruel Ultimatum to the years of work behind the scenes, Magic's future is forever entwined with iconic moments in Buehler's past.

Not that he's done just yet. While Buehler may be out of the traditional coverage booth, his groundbreaking work with Vintage Super League and Community Super League has brought Magic to fans in new and exciting ways that have pushed Magic forward in the eSports world.

As a player, Buehler defined dominance. As a commentator, he made Magic come alive. And as an uncertain future unfolds for a life devoted to bringing Magic to the rest of us, Buehler knows one thing for sure:

"I still love telling stories about Magic, and I plan to continue to do that," he said. "I've always wanted to find the story, find the hook that makes the game fun, and share that with people. I'm very proud of the Community Super League; it was all about showing off a side of the game that isn't purely competitive, and it shows people just having fun playing the game that we love.

"Magic is the best game ever made, and I've always wanted to do my job—whatever it was—well enough that the game would still be there for me when I retired. It's a game that I expect to play the rest of my life, and when I look back on the arc of my career, I feel proud. I had my moments, and I'm happy to have played my part telling those stories and preserving the history."

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