The Long and Winding Road: The 1995 Magic World Championships

Posted in Feature on February 16, 2009

By Mark Rosewater

Working in R&D since '95, Mark became Magic head designer in '03. His hobbies: spending time with family, writing about Magic in all mediums, and creating short bios.

Seattle, Wash.—You could tell just from watching Henry Stern walk across the room that he had far more energy than he was able to contain. Quickly scooting past various Magic duels in progress, Stern exited the room where the tournament was being held. The glass door to the courtyard swung open with a vengeance as Stern walked into the light and triumphantly raised his arms. "YES!!!!"

Mark Justice had heard a great deal about his Austrian opponent, Mu Luen Wang. A master of mind games, Wang took every opportunity to keep his opponent oft balance (including arm wrestling one opponent for the right to go first). A lot was riding on this duel and the pressure was intense. Then Wang made his move, staring at Justice and saying. "I don't understand. With the way you play, how did you get here?"

Justice answered the only way he could—by winning.

The scene was the end of the qualifiers at the Second Annual Magic World Championship. Stern and Justice both just managed to make the top eight and would advance to the finals the next day. Like the sixty-nine other participants, Stern and Justice had beaten the odds and earned the right to compete for the title of world champion. The road to the World Championship had been a bumpy one, but Stern and Justice had survived it, and this is their story.

The Players

Henry Stern, a 27-year-old aerospace engineer from Los Angeles, Calif., was bitten by the Magic bug during the early days of Unlimited. As the fever grew over time, Stern soon found Magic becoming a major part of his life. Not a week went by without him participating in regular weekly tournaments (includitig several sealed-deck events, an experience which would prove beneficial). When he first heard about the regional, national, and world tournaments, Henry had no doubt, that he'd be there.

Justice (right) had luck and a hot streak through regionals and nationals, but it ran out in the world semifinal match against eventual champion Blumke (left).

Mark Justice, a 24-year-old Magic and baseball card shop owner from Salt Lake City, Utah, had a similar story. A Magic junkie since the tail end of The Dark, Justice had been chomping at the bit to test himself against some real competiton. Regionals, nationals, world; they all sounded good.

The Southwest Regionals

Held May 27-28 at Gamex in Los Angeles, the U.S. Southwest Regionals was the first stop for Stern and Justice. The goal they shared with all the other competitors was a simple one: take one of the top two slots and get an all-expenses-paid trip to the U.S. Nationals.

Stern and Justice each came prepared with a Type II deck. Stern chose to play with a blue/white control deck with lots of Counterspells and Control Magics ("My Millstone deck without the Millstones," he called it). while Justice opted for a black/red deck focusing on card denial and direct damage.

Stern and Justice, having both breezed through the qualifiers, arrived early the next morning to start the tournament. The first section. a Type II round robin, divided all the players into groups of eight. Stern's heart sunk as the names of Southern California's best players were called off into his group, one after another.

Each duel was hard-fought, but Stern managed to overcome each of his opponents (in marathon-length games). That was until his final match against Joel Unger, where Stern suffered his first defeat.

Justice, meanwhile, faced none of the stiff competition that plagued Stern and was able to walk away from the first round unscathed.

The second round was a sealed-deck competition structured identically to the first round. Stern faced bad luck once again as he drew rather weak sealed deck. He tried using his sealed-deck skills to salvage his bad draw, but in the end, he was unable to compensate for it and failed to make the finals. Justice, on the other hand, drew a strong deck and finished the round only half a game off of a perfect score to advance to the final round.

By this time, it was 2 a.m., but with the National Championship berths at stake, the final eight players played on.

The quarterfinal opponent posed Justice little problem. The same could not be said of his next opponent. Mark Chalice. With the trip to Philadelphia on the line, both players were playing their very best. "Looking back on the match," says Mark, "the second game against Chalice was probably the best Magic game I've ever played."

The tension built as both players' life totals hovered at 1 for twelve consecutive turns. As one spectator observed, "I was so nervous that I had to keep reminding myself that I wasn't playing."

Things looked bleak as Chalice got the edge by using a Nevinyrral's Disk and Armageddon to strategically remove everything on the board except a Mahamoti Djinn. But the fates were on Justice's side, as he drew a Red Elemental Blast at the last possible second and went on to win the game and the match.

Having used up all his luck against Chalice, however, Justice lost the championship match in two games straight to the top-seeded Unger. "Sure I wanted to win," admitted Justice, "but when I lost, I really didn't care. I was going to Philadelphia!"

The U.S. National Championship

Held at Origins, July 13-16. in Philadelphia, Penn., the U.S. National Championship was vital in Stern and Justice's quest to play in the World Championship. Since the World was an invitation-only event, the only chance for the two Americans rested in winning one of the top four spots.

The National Championship tournament only had sixty-four slots, meaning that players had to earm their spot. Justice achieved his entry with his second place win at the Southwest Regionals. Since the top 25 players in the Duelists' Convocation were assured spots, Stern, ranked at No. 23, was also guaranteed entry.

Stern and Justice spent the first few days of the convention relaxing while hundreds of other players fought it out for the open slots. Justice passed the time by beginning a hot streak, winning two back-to-back Type I tournaments.

Finally, Saturday rolled around and the Nationals began. The first round was a sealed-deck competition. Stern fared slightly better in his sealed-deck mix than he had at Regionals, but it was clearly Justice who had luck on his side. Losing only one game and drawing another in four rounds, Justice walked out of the sealed competition with a significant lead. Stern performed well, but not enough to guarantee advancing without a very strong showing in the Type II section of the tournament.

Justice decided to capitalize on his lead by playing a different deck than planned. (The rules allowed players to change decks between the semifinal and final rounds.) Playing to win a consistent two-out-of-three ratio that he felt would keep him in the top eight. Justice switched to a conservative black/red deck with a splash of blue (another card denial/direct damage variant).

Stern didn't have the luxury of playing such games. Sticking with a fast red/green deck (dubbed "Vise Age") fine tuned specifically for the Nationals, Stern needed to play quick and loose and take out his opponents before their decks had time to get established.

As he predicted, Justice's Type II deck fared very close to its expected two-out-of-three ratio clinching him a tie for the top spot. Stern's victory, on the other hand, almost didn't happen. Playing the third game against Dana Rossi, Stern was put in a position where he needed a victory to make the cutoff. Time was running out and the game was a minute away from being a draw (which, according to the tournament's pointing system, woud not be enough to allow Stern to advance to the finals).

Stern had the cards to win the fifth game of the semis, but never got the mana.

Stern remembered staring at the cards, trying to find some way to pull a victory out in the minute remaining. "It was like one of [Mark] Rosewater's puzzles in The Duelist. I knew there was a way to do it, but I just didn't know if I could find it in time." Then, just under the wire. Stern found the solution and won the duel, squeaking him into a low tie for fifth place.

Stern and Justice spent that night making changes to their decks. The two had become friends, and bounced ideas off one another late into the evening. "The key," said Stern, "was that we were playing the meta-game. We observed what won in the semis and then adapted our decks to deal with it."


Since all six of the other decks had a very strong black denial element, both Stern and Justice adapted their decks (with cards like Whirling Dervishes and Lifeforces) to deal with strong black adversaries. Justice chose to change back to his primary deck (a red/green deck with a single black spell—Mind Twist) which he then tweaked to be anti-black. Stern opted to stay with his Vise Age deck, but beefed up the anti-black cards in his sideboard and added some Dervishes to his standard deck.

The final round, a double-elimination event, allowed each player up to two match losses. This proved beneficial for Justice, who lost his very first match. Stern, on the other hand, beat his first opponent handily—mostly due to his Whirling Dervishes.

Justice was now in the loser's bracket—a further loss would dash all hopes of advancing to the World Championship. But both Stern and Justice's strong anti-black cards helped carry them through the second and third rounds, cementing their positions on the four-member U.S. National Team.

As fate would have it, Justice beat his next two opponents and had to face Stern for the U.S. championship. Since Justice had advanced from the loser's bracket, he needed to win two matches in a row to beat Stern, while Stern only had to win a single match.

Justice started strong in the first match, winning two games straight. But Stern evened up the score by winning the following two games, including the most exciting game of the finals, where he decked Justice using two Jokulhaups to keep starting the game over. "Look, no Millstones!" joked Stern upon winning.

The fifth game was tense as Justice almost bungled the Channel/Fireball combination that won him the game. Justice later admitted he had never Channel/Fireballed before that day.

With the score even, the U.S. National Championship now rested on a single five-game match. "Losing my first game, I had come so far to get to that final match," said Justice. "I just think at that point whatever forces [there were] were on my side. Henry played some great games, but that final match just went my way."

Justice went on to rattle off three straight games, walking away from the table as the U.S. National Champion. Talking about his loss, Stern recalled Justice's words at regionals: "I wanted to win, but more than anything else, I really wanted to go to Seattle [for the World Championship]. Oh, who am I kidding? I wanted to win. There, I said it!"

The 1995 World Championship

Held in Seattle Aug. 5-7, the World Championship lived up to its name. With seventy-one participants from nineteen different countries (Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada. Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, and the United States), the World Championship demonstrated just how far-reaching Magic had become.

As the United States had been the last country to hold its Nationals, the World Championship was held just a few weeks after Origins, giving Stern and Justice little time to prepare. The two both arrived with several decks in tow, unsure what they wanted to play.

Stern and Justice were hoping to once again make effective use of the meta-game, hand-picking decks that would suit each part of the tournament, but their plans were dashed when the players voted to have the same decks used throughout the entire competition.

Because of the difference in scoring in the semifinal and final rounds, Stern and Justice were faced with a dilemma: A fast deck would consistently score better in the semifinals because the semifinals had time limits and players were scored on number of games won. But the finals would have no time limits and the only thing that mattered was who won the match, so slow, reactive decks would perform better in the championship round.

The two players had to make an important decision: Should they go with a deck geared toward making the finals and hope that it would fare well in the championship round? Or should they build a deck that would do well in the finals and hope that it could make it that far? In the end, they both chose to play decks that would serve effectively through the semifinals and made sideboards which they hoped would help if they made it to the finals.

The 1995 World Championship commenced with a five-round Swiss sealed deck tournament, similar to the format used in the U.S. Nationals. Stern finally got the strong card mix he had been missing in previous tournaments, and both he and Justice made very potent sealed decks. Stern and Justice had an extra advantage as they were both seasoned sealed-deck players, while many of the other competitors were playing sealed-deck games for only the first or second time. By day's end, Stern had a clear lead, with Justice two games back tied for fourth place.

Stern and Justice had another late night as they pondered all the options available to them for the Type II section of the preliminaries. In the end, Stern chose to play with a slightly altered version of his "Vise Age" deck. He had several other very good choices, but decided to stick with the one deck that he had played and knew the best.

Justice opted to play with a red/artifact deck he had created around an Ice Age artifact, Elkin Bottle (", : Take the top card from your library and place it face up in front of you. You may play that card as though it were in your hand; if you do not play it by your next upkeep, remove it from the game."). Voted the worst card in Ice Age by InQuest magazine, Justice felt compelled to prove just how useful it could be.

The Type II competition was fierce, as the players were now competing with decks they knew well. Both Stern and Justice suffered early setbacks that ate into their respective leads. But by the fourth round, Stern and Justice were tied for the lead. With two matches remaining, all they needed to guarantee inclusion in the final eight was to win three of the remaining six duels.

Justice did well in his fourth match, winning two of the three games he needed. Stern didn't fare quite as well, winning only one duel. To advance to the championship round, Justice had to win one more game while Stern had to win two.

Stern didn't let the pressure get to him, however, and came on strong, winning three duels straight. Justice had a much tougher match playing the other high scorer (Mu Luen Wang from Austria, another finalist), but still managed to pull out the one game he needed.

Both Peter Leiher and Mike Long, the other members of the U.S. national team, came close to qualifying for the finals (giving America the highest team average), but only Justice and Stern advanced to the championship round. Also qualifying were players from Italy (Andrea Redi and Ivan Curina), one from Switzerland (Alexander Blumke), one from Austria (Mu Lien Wang), one from France (Marc Hernandez), and one from Finland (Henri Schildt).

In the first round, Stern paired up against Redi, while Justice had to face Schildt. Justice swept the Finn, winning three games straight. Stern, on the other hand, had five very close duels against Redi, winning his final game with the help of a rather large Lhurgoyf.

French National champion Hernandez (left) took Switzerland's Blumke (right) to five games in the championship match, but in the end, the Swiss prevailed.

In the semifinals, Stern faced Hemandez, who was playing a very defensive white/red deck. Trading games one for one throughout the first four duels, the two found themselves in the crucial fifth game. Although Henry had a wonderful draw (Channel, Fireball, Orcish Lumberjack, and Zuran Orb), he never drew the one green mana he needed to pull it together.

Meanwhile, a table away, Justice was facing Blumke, who had also won his first match 3-0. Because Blumke had a black/white/blue card denial deck, Justice knew he had to play very agressively and dominate the game before Blumke could empty his hand. Unfortunately, things didn't go Justice's way and Blumke won the first two games. Justice fought back to take the third game. The fourth game was another tense match for Justice (including a twenty-five minute move by Blumke), but in the end, Blumke won.

Thus Stern and Justice both had to settle for being world semifinalists and watched as Blumke fought and defeated Hernandez in an exciting five-game match (see next page for championship results).

The End of the Road

After the trophies were handed out and all the official pictures were taken, Stern and Justice joined the American team for a dinner at an out-of-the-way restaurant. Both were proud of how well they had managed to do and were a bit reflective on how far they had both come. "It's weird," explained Justice, "Two months ago, I was just a guy who played Magic at the local store and now I'm the U.S. national champion and a world semifinalist. Feels kind of good."

"The whole experience was great," added Stern. "Just to be part of all of this. To be here or at Nationals and play all these really good players was a treat all unto itself. Don't get me wrong. Winning was nice, but more than that, it was just cool to be part of it."

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