When we think of Limited today, it comes in three basic flavors: Sealed Deck, Booster Draft, and Team Sealed (with a small handful of teams getting the opportunity for Team Draft at the end of a Grand Prix weekend). The formats have been tumbled smooth and the new cards glide through those formats with little friction. Sets are designed with Limited in mind, players have unfettered access to lands, and there are abundant resources for becoming a better Limited player. In fact, you can head over to twitch.tv right now and find someone drafting. Should you want to play in a draft, you can fire up Magic Online and be drafting within minutes.
I look back to the early days of Magic and the Pro Tour and can vividly remember Richard Garfield asking me, "Have you heard of this new format we are trying? It's called Booster Draft." At least I think that is what he said; I had a hard time hearing him over the chorus of angels. Booster Draft was just one of a handful of different Limited formats that got tried out for Pro Tour play over the back half of the 1990s, and I wanted to talk to some of the big Limited figures in the game from that dark age (at least in terms of coverage and information) of the Pro Tour about how Limited rapidly evolved over the first few years of the Pro Tour.
Joining me to look back were:
- Two-time Pro Tour Top 8 competitor Brian Hacker. Hacker is credited with teaching the Magic world about tempo in Limited and for painting an alluring portrait of the after-hours Draft scene on the Pro Tour. While he doesn't play much these days, he still is very much a gamer and runs an escape room in San Diego.
- Three-time Pro Tour Top 8 competitor Chris Pikula. His first career Top 8 came during Pro Tour Atlanta, which was also the Mirage Prerelease. Not. Even. Kidding. Pikula is also a Magic Invitational winner and had his win commemorated with Meddling Mage. Pikula is prominently featured in the new Magic documentary Enter the Battlefield.
- Pro Tour Hall of Famer David Humpherys. Humpherys was one of the founding members of Team Your Move Games. He has five Pro Tour Top 8s, and he won Pro Tour Washington, DC, the first ever Team Limited Pro Tour. He is currently the Lead Magic Developer in Wizards R&D.
- Pro Tour Hall of Famer Gary Wise. Wise was the first Limited writer on TheSideboard.com, a predecessor to this very site, and was the winner of Pro Tour New York 2000. He still writes about sports and games and occasionally shows up on the PT to see his old friends.
- Pro Tour Hall of Famer Steven O'Mahoney-Schwartz. Steve OMS has three Pro Tour Top 8s and they all came in Limited, including his win at Pro Tour Los Angeles—which saw him beat both Mike Long and Jon Finkel in the Top 8. Steve can still be found drafting from time to time at Jon Finkel's, when he is not caring for his one-year-old son.
Limited Before the Pro Tour
Prereleases have gone through a number of evolutions over the course of Magic's lifespan. The first couple of attempts at these events were large destination tournaments held in one location. The Ice Age Prerelease was held in Toronto, Canada. The Homelands Prerelease took place at The Gathering I, which was an early attempt at a Magic convention as Wizards' brand team attempted to figure out what their Organized Play program was going to look like. The next large event they ran was the Black Lotus Pro Tour in New York City.
David: Early on, Limited was very different than it is now. There wasn't much in the way of synergies. There was a lot of high variance in how strong the cards were. There were garbage cards and some cards that were amazing. A lot of the early sets did not have a lot of synergies that you could find and build around. You were really just trying to find the best cards.
Gary: The thing that got me into Limited, even before I was on the Pro Tour—I was a Type I player (playing the format now called Vintage)—was having my deck stolen. That left me without a Type I deck, and I was poor enough that I couldn't get back into it, so I started playing Limited. When I caught the thief a year later, I was so invested in Limited that I never played Type I again.
Steve: Are we talking about opening Limited Edition (Beta) Sealed decks and playing Limited? Are we going that far back? I definitely remember playing heads-up Sealed Deck. Nobody knew how to build a Sealed deck right. People lumped in all their five, six, and seven casting cost cards and never figured out ways to play them all—and they didn't play them right, either.
Chris: We did not know about the Ice Age Prerelease for whatever reason. David Humpherys won that, right?
David: It was a super exciting time. It was a big-stakes event, and we were seeing the cards for the first time and trying to make sense of what was going on. It was exciting in terms of seeing a bunch of new cards and not knowing what to expect. Today a lot of your preparation for a Prerelease event might be learning all the combat tricks or learning all the things to play around—this tournament itself was such a blast because you legitimately had no idea what was going to happen next. I didn't know people in Toronto and wasn't able to network super easily to find out about cards. Every round was a big surprise, as you didn't know what was gonna happen.
Steve: I remember playing in the Homelands Prerelease in New York. I was just excited about getting new cards. It was different. You didn't realize that Homelands was a slow and lame set. The rounds took forever and you needed real determination to win. You have to find some weird ways to win in Homelands Sealed Deck. That was probably the one tournament where holding back, waiting, and playing your expensive cards was the key to winning. There was no tempo, just Serrated Arrows, Autumn Willow, those kinds of cards. I remember having Serrated Arrows in that tournament.
David: I largely won the Ice Age Prerelease off of the back of two copies of Binding Grasp. I just kept taking people's best creatures and winning. Which was kind of funny because I was notorious in my local tournament scene—even in Type 1 when other people were playing Swords to Plowshares—for playing Control Magic. It was kind of fitting that I got the Binding Grasps. That was something I was already doing for a long time. Binding Grasp also gives +1 to toughness. People would try to Incinerate some creature that I stole, only to be sorry because it had 1 extra toughness. There were many reasons that Binding Grasp was great, and the fact that people didn't bother to read all the way through the card was one of them.
Steve: I won that Homelands event. I know I won a Nightmare jacket and some weird deck box—but the big thing was the Nightmare jacket. That event wasn't like a regular Magic tournament. There were lots of decorations and artwork—it was weird. I remember Richard Garfield was there, I remember a lot of artists were there. I remember the venue was very dark.
David: I was actually invited to the first Pro Tour because I won the Ice Age Prerelease. There was some other cool stuff. I won an Ice Age medallion with three diamonds in it. It is, I assume, a one-of-a-kind Magic item. I still have that. I will occasionally break it out for things like the Community Cup. I also got my Ice Age T-shirt that I still have. Besides the medallion, which was the main prize, I think I won one or two boxes of Ice Age that we just opened on the car ride back from Toronto to Boston. I went to the early internet and posted a bunch of the names of the cards. It was at a time when there hadn't been a bunch of information shared, despite so many Ice Age boosters having been opened.
The First Limited Pro Tour
The first Limited Pro Tour took place aboard the Queen Mary in Long Beach, California—the first of many editions of Pro Tour Los Angeles to come throughout the remainder of the 1990s. The format was Sealed Deck using 4th Edition.
Brian: I think the term "Sealed Luck" was totally inaccurate. I think I had twelve straight Top 8s in PTQs and that was my all-time favorite accomplishment. Partially because you had to do it in different formats. Southern California was really difficult, and you had to play Sealed Deck in a lot of those. And people just thought that it was like 80% luck and 20% skill, but there was a lot you could do in Sealed Deck.
David: You need to put some together some sort of package and have some kind of plan. You had to have some cards that counted as finishers. You could build a Sealed deck and have a lot of good cards but no real way to win. Also, in those days, running people out of cards was a legitimate option, because a lot of people didn't have great ways to win and you wanted to prepare for that inevitability.
Steve: I probably played more Sealed back then than anyone. I was always playing those, and my record was pretty outrageous. You kind of played to your bombs in those, but people also played expensive cards that weren't bombs. Nobody built coherent decks. A lot of times back then people didn't play right, either. People just held back so much. Now granted you don't want to waste a Lightning Bolt on a Grizzly Bear, but if that Bear deals 10 damage to you before you deal with it...That's how a lot of people played, dying to cards while holding things in their hands. Saving the Counterspell, saving the Dark Banishing, worrying about what might happen later. When they're at like 8 life, every card against them is a big deal. People just didn't understand it in the beginning.
Chris: I am pretty sure that until that tournament was announced, me and David Price and David Bartholow—the Ithaca guys—had never played Sealed Deck. I don't think Gray Matter was running any Sealed Deck tournaments yet. I think the PTQs were the Black Lotus Pro Tour Constructed format where you had to play five cards from each set. I think David Price won one of the PTQs, but I don't think we practiced for that Pro Tour.
Brian: I actually remember this pretty clearly. I was playing and I was pretty good when the first Pro Tour happened, but I wasn't dialed in enough for some reason to know what was happening. So I didn't know to get into it. The second one was going to be in Southern California. Everyone in Southern California went to the Costa Mesa Women's Club to play, and I noticed they were practicing for that event—the people who were going to go to that tournament. I had also qualified by that time but I had, to that point, never played Limited.
Chris: I remember playing against Mario Robaina in Round 1. Mario had made some boastful post about the Pacific Coast Legends (Mark Justice, Mark Chalice, Henry Stern, and himself) on a forum leading up to the second Pro Tour. I had printed that post out because I thought it was so absurd that that they thought they were so great. I literally got paired against him Round 1 and pulled the post out of my bag, slammed it on the table, and challenged him like, "What the heck is this?" That was really amazing, a really weird coincidence.
Unfortunately, he beat me.
David: I remember in one match I had to Magical Hack an Island Fish Jasconius against Mike Long and beat him with it in my blue-green deck just because I needed a way to win against him. Really bad stuff...embarrassing cards. I did Top 32 the first four Pro Tours I played in. That's a random stat I can throw out there.
Brian: I played Sealed Deck maybe a couple times in my life before that, and I really didn't understand it at all. It's weird because even at that point when people were practicing, they really didn't have any idea about what they were doing, looking back. It was before people even understood that you were making a deck. It was like "let's just figure out what the best cards are and put them all in our decks and win." I kind of tried that and figured out what the best cards were and thought I would do okay, but I also thought there was something missing that I didn't understand—what was really going on. I didn't do well in that first Queen Mary event.
The Prerelease Pro Tour
Season two of the Pro Tour (1996) kicked off with a singular event in PT history—a Prerelease Pro Tour. The set Mirage was played for the first time by players on the Pro Tour in an era before card previews, and the new cards, mechanics, and keywords would unfold before the players round by round.
Chris: There was a big controversy for that Pro Tour—again surrounding the Pacific Coast Legends. There was always this perception that the Pacific Coast guys were in with Wizards of the Coast. There was a huge rumor—and at this point I don't recall what the truth was—that those PCL guys had seen the cards from Mirage before the PT. This was a Prerelease Pro Tour—with no card previews. They hadn't come out with the crazy system of previewing cards ahead of time. We had no idea what was in that set, period. When did we even learn what phasing was? Was it at the players meeting?
Brian: The Atlanta Pro Tour was just a weird PT. When John Yoo made the Top 8, people thought that, looking at his deck, he was some sort of savant. His creature count was just absurd. He was playing green-white or something and it was a real outlier in terms of what was making it. It was always these decks that had Hammer of Bogardan and two Kaervek's Torches. I remember people were saying that John was such a good Limited player and John was screaming "I got the worst deck ever. This is so bad. I opened nothing." I guess we were talking about a proto–mana curve idea. The only way he could get offense was to have a whole crapload of early guys, so he just put in a ton of creatures to make that happen. Because people were playing bad stuff and really slow decks, playing 21 creatures was really just an advantage for him. Because it made him have this really good mana curve. It's funny looking back at how primitive things really were back then.
David: My experience there was an awesome one, but it was a little unfortunate how Mirage was pretty imbalanced toward red. It seemed like almost everyone who Top 8ed that PT had multiple red X-spells...and Hammer of Bogardan. I'm almost certainly exaggerating, but there was Volcanic Geyser—an instant-speed X-spell—Kaervek's Torch, and Hammer of Bogardan.
Chris: You go to the Pro Tour and you've never seen the set before, which is just totally incredible. The entire world was still really inexperienced at Limited at that point. This was Pro Tour number five, if you count Worlds. At this point the whole world had not even had a round of Sealed Deck qualifiers. I believe all the PTQs had still been Constructed. So there had still been no real driving force teaching people how to play Sealed Deck. Not only was it a Prerelease, not only was it Sealed Deck, but we were using Starter Decks and you could only add five basic lands to your pool. Mirage Starter Decks had 22 lands and they were evenly distributed. You would get 5-5-4-4-4. If one of your best colors was one where you got four of those lands...it was a problem.
Gary: That mana restriction made it tough to go two colors, but that was just the way it was done. It was very rare that you got to do two colors.
Steve: Oh god, I remember those rules! Back when you got lands in your starter deck you were pretty much forced to play three colors, you didn't have a choice. You couldn't get more than five [of any given basic land type].
Chris: What I really remember about this tournament more than anything was how badly people built their decks. It was totally unbelievable. Brian Weissman, who was known for "The Deck," did not play his Savage Twister, which is really crazy. It's a really powerful Limited card. And when I said he didn't play it, I don't think he played red-green and in hindsight it's pretty clear that he should've played red-green. Because he's Brian Weissman, he built the white-blue deck. I remember him saying to me he didn't think Savage Twister was that good. And I said, "I'm just gonna have to disagree with you on this one. What are you talking about?"
David: I sideboarded in Savage Twister every single Game 2. I remember misguidedly thinking that my creatures seemed so good that I fell prey to the traditional trap of "I don't want to play a Wrath." I quickly found out that everyone else had really good creatures too—of course I should be playing Savage Twister every time.
Chris: To open Hammer of Bogardan was pretty crazy. It was obviously a card we had never seen before. This is back when cards had been pretty underpowered in the expansions. This is before they were really good at balancing things. Homelands was still a set in recent memory. The other interesting, really difficult-to-evaluate rare that I opened was Mangara's Tome. It was a five-casting-cost artifact where you basically tutored for multiple cards and every turn could pay mana to draw one of those instead of your normal draw step. I played the Tome because I knew I could put Mountains and the Hammer under it. Otherwise if I'm gonna play a three-color deck—because you couldn't really play a two-color deck and have enough lands in your deck—it's really going to be hard to draw enough Mountains to recur the Hammer. It cost 2RRR to bring it back.
I ended up making the Top 8 even though I got a match loss against eventual Champion Frank Adler. I was given a game loss after already losing Game 1. But I snuck into the Top 8 anyway. This was a single-day nine-round tournament with a cut to a Top 8. We got new Sealed decks in the Top 8. I don't remember anything about my Top 8 deck except that I lost to Aaron Muranaka—again. He was also my other loss in the Swiss. He had a deck with two Torches and a Volcanic Geyser. I believe he had three Giant Mantises. Our entire match was him casting two Giant Mantises and then we were kind of putzing around for a while. Then he would go and Geyser me at the end of my turn, untap, and Kaervek's Torch me. His deck was quite good.
While people may have played heads-up Sealed Deck as their early form of after-hours Limited competition, that was quickly displaced by the advent of drafting. By the time the Pro Tour returned to the Queen Mary for the second Pro Tour Los Angeles in 1997, we saw the first hints of what Limited would become over the next two decades.
David: Something I remember from the first Pro Tour: on the last day, I went upstairs to do something that was called "a draft." That was the first time I had ever even heard of a draft. It wasn't at all like what we know a draft to be now. I went upstairs to some big room where there were like 60 people in a single line and there were three boxes filled with cards. You made a random pick from the first box and if you didn't like it you would put it back. Then you could take a new card from the second box and if you don't like that you could take a card from the third box. And that was it. Then you got back on this big circular line around the room and did that I don't know how many times until you had a deck. That was my first experience with Draft. It is good to see that Wizards rapidly innovated on better ways to do a draft.
Brian: I started drafting with John Yoo and Truc Bui, and we were practicing for the next Queen Mary event. It really was Truc who figured out that it was all about speed, it was all about tempo. He figured out that you had to have a certain number of two-drops, that you had to have a certain number of three-drops, and so on. It was even better if you could get one-drops, but you had to have a mana curve. In addition to drafting a style of deck, it now had to fit this other requirement as well. That was just something that—it sounds weird now—at the time nobody was doing.
I quickly picked up on what Truc was doing. I think he figured it out because he wanted to draft black-red because it was the best deck. And then he thought that the best versions of that deck will have that mana curve. From there, when I would play him, I noticed this was a great idea and that it needed to generalize. Every deck you're drafting needed to have this mana curve—that was the only way you could beat a really good black-red deck in that Draft format. You had to go just as fast with your own stuff. I think I was the first person drafting like this in other colors, like white-blue or green-white. From there, the idea spread to all the other people. John Yoo was picking it up at the same time, and people like Kurt Burgner and Jason Zila were too.
Gary: I went back to university and met Jeff Donais. We used to go to Mike Guptil's tournaments. That started me down the competitive road. I got myself very invested in the Toronto community, which was Paul McCabe, Terry Borer, Eric Tam, and Gary Krakower. It was a lot of top-level players—to me it was the most dominant community in the world at that time. I took my beatings from them and that's how I learned how to play the game. I lost a lot. I really started practicing Draft with those guys. Dallas was a regular tournament, but then I made it to Los Angeles that same season and Los Angeles was Limited, so I had an excuse to do a lot of drafting with the guys I just named plus Gab Tsang and Matt Vienneau. I remember sitting at my table, directly across from Steven O'Mahoney-Schwartz, and feeling like I was drafting like a god. I was giving him knowing looks and he must've been looking back at me like who is this idiot who's making all these bad picks? So I didn't know what I was doing.
Brian: When we went to the Queen Mary, I remember the first day we would get in drafts where cards that we thought would go first or second in our drafts at home—like Undo—would go around the table. I said that I would take Undo over Kaervek's Torch. That was because I noticed my winning percentage playing with Undo was way higher than it was when playing Torch. Mark Justice thought I was crazy, but then I remember the first day we were just destroying everybody. John Yoo had this four-Undo deck—and he said he could've gotten six but he didn't know what to do with that many. That wouldn't be possible back home. We were all completely crushing the first day—everybody who played with us in Southern California did—and we ran into Mark and he said we were totally right. We educated the field in this weird way on the first day.
Chris: This was a month after Visions came out. It was the second tournament on the boat, and for me, it is really where modern Limited started. There were Limited PTQ's leading up to it, and this is really when people started identifying themselves as Limited specialists. Guys like John Yoo, who of course made the Top 8 in Atlanta, and Truc Bui, Brian Hacker, and Igor Frayman. These guys really focused on Limited. This is where the Undo/Fallen Askari/Man-o'-War type of decks started. I very clearly remember them. Their big thing was that Fallen Askari didn't have a drawback, because why would you want to block anyway? For me this is really when Limited started.
Brian: We knew Chris Pikula's team pretty well at that point, and we were hanging out with them before the tournament started and talking to them about Draft strategy. Dave Price was saying that you had to get a Crash of Rhinos and put Ward of Lights on it to get through your opponent's Walls and stuff. That was how they thought you won. And I remember Truc and I just cackling and laughing wildly. We were just shouting "Oh my god! You have no idea!" And they were like "What is wrong with these guys?" and we were like "Go ahead and try that. You won't win a game off of us." The decks we were drafting were a whole other level of tech. I remember when Truc and John made the Top 8 and the next issue of The Sideboard came out. It showed their decks versus everyone else's decks in the Top 8. The other decks were not completely committed to mana curve. If you look at Truc's deck, it was the ideal you wanted: two-drops, three-drops, and four-drops. That tournament was the first time it transitioned into what ended up looking like actually good Limited decks.
Chris: That tournament, of course, had the most absurd finals in the history of Magic. At some point in the floor rules, they decided that you needed to tap your mana before announcing a spell. I think the driving force behind this was because there were players who would kind of announce spells to get a response from a less-experienced player and then tap their mana afterward in case their plan changed based on whether or not they got a response. I think that was the fear. There was also some fear that if they didn't tap their mana they could take it back. So basically they were trying to say you had to have the mana in your pool when you announced the spell. David Mills just did not play that way. His whole life he had been announced his spell then tapping lands. He got warning after warning. The judges talked to him about in the finals and said if he did this again they were going to disqualify him. And they did.
Draft, Draft, and More Drafting
Drafting quickly took off from that second Queen Mary event. Some players didn't even get a hotel room for the tournament—they would just stay up all night drafting in the side events room. The 24-hour nature of The Boat (as the Queen Mary event was known) and the Origins Game Fair—held in Columbus, Ohio—made them the epicenters of the Draft phenomenon.
Brian: There really wasn't much of a culture of non-tournament play that wasn't straight practice in the very, very early days. After the tournament, you would be playing in some other format for like a qualifier tournament—maybe Type II. People had a variety of decks that they would play in Constructed against each other, but it was always just for fun and it really wasn't that interesting because that's what you always played, what you always practiced with.
Gary: I failed to requalify at that tournament, but I kept winning PTQs and eventually found myself doing more drafting than Constructed play. I just preferred it. I found the selection process to be fascinating, I found the limited card pool to be interesting. I liked that the limited card pool made for a finite amount of information. If I played enough, I could lose enough and eventually cover the entire spectrum. That made it really interesting for me.
The most important part of Limited's growth was non-tournament play. People would drive someplace just to have someone to draft against. It's wasn't like it is now where you always have Magic Online around. You had to go somewhere to play people. And in Toronto, part of the problem was we had a group of seven or eight guys who all dominated locally—eventually nobody wanted to play against us. Nobody was saying yes; at Origins in Columbus, people were saying yes.
Steve: Draft really started for me around the first Columbus event (which was the third Pro Tour, held in 1996). It might not have been full force yet, but there was definitely some drafting going on. Playing Limited, I qualified for an Unlimited Edition Sealed Deck tournament there. I have fun memories of that one—using one of the Moxen and a Sol Ring to power out a Juggernaut on turn one, then Fireballing people to death. It was an Unlimited Sealed Deck event, but the prize was a Limited Edition (Beta) starter pack, and I opened it. People couldn't believe I was going to open it—of course I was going to open it. I had an Unlimited Mox Pearl in my deck and then I opened a Beta Mox Pearl in my prize pack. I still have it...never played. I remember Origins just being insane because there were so many gamers and so many events. That's when it really became a mainstay.
Gary: They used to keep the tournament venue open 24 hours so that we could draft at 3:00 in the morning—and we did. Dave Williams was a guy, when he was young and learning how to play the game and manage his emotions, who would get into these long drawn-out marathon sessions where he would lose a few in a row, be 72 hours removed from sleep, and insist on continuing to play until he finally won one. He got a lot better later on, but there were a lot of people willing to play against him at that 72-hour point.
Steve: I was exhausted and had had enough and went to sleep. My brother and Williams stayed up and drafted all night. They lost so much. I had to go get them the next morning. They just kept playing. We had lost like two drafts and they lost like four more overnight. And it wasn't just Gary Wise they were losing to; they were losing to other people too.
Brian: We started in Southern California, just two-on-two drafts, and that really blew my mind. Because instead of just playing for yourself, you played for your buddies. It went from that to three-on-three or four-on-four. To me, that three-on-three Draft is really the height of Magic. You're not just drafting for yourself. It's a little bit of reading what other people are doing, what your teammates like, kind of reading what you're seeing. I love that.
Once that started in Southern California, it became—when we were practicing for events—what kept our Costa Mesa scene going. Once drafting took off, people wanted to play all the time. On top of the Saturday, we had this Wednesday group. Really, it was pretty incredible. I was driving from San Diego; it's an hour and a half. Truc and John were driving from LA, and that's an hour. Sometimes the groups would get into the 30s and everyone was drafting. My fondest memories of Magic are of playing back then.
Gary: My strong results were all Limited—I had a stretch of five Limited-inclusive PTs (and that includes one Worlds) where I made Top 32 in all five. That's how I really cemented myself as a pro player and got myself onto the gravy train—getting to the point where I didn't need to qualify myself over and over again.
Steve: My first PT Top 8 came in Mainz, Germany. It was Tempest Rochester Draft—ah, Trained Armodon. Instead of drafting speculatively, you could look around (all the cards were face up on the table) and analyze and build a deck based on what other people were picking. A lot of times I would just position myself as the only black-green drafter at the table, because that pair was underdrafted. My decks were ridiculous. It was definitely due to Trained Armodon and Crazed Armodon. I remember I lost in the finals to Matt Place because I messed up a Crazed Armodon trigger. I started moving it to my graveyard—and it would have died on my end step—but I wanted to cast a spell after combat, and they made me stick to it. I guess they were right; I did pick it up and move toward my graveyard before I realized what I should've done. I am not saying I definitely would've won.
Gary: I think Rochester Draft was a far more skill-intensive format than Booster Draft. Any time you increase the amount of information that everyone has at their disposal, the format becomes more skill-intensive. The complete information aspect of drafting really adds to the strategic elements of play.
Chris: Pro Tour Mainz was the "I came to play" tournament. Basically if you went 4-1-1, you knew you would make Day Two. If you went 4-2, you might miss. Most people, when they got to 4-1, would just draw because making Day Two...Well, if you don't make Day Two, you're out of the tournament. Taking that risk was just not worth it for a lot of people. Back then none of us had any money, and a flight to Germany wasn't cheap. We wanted to maximize our chances at cashing, and almost everyone in the 4-1 bracket drew. I get paired against some guy and I offer the draw. And he says...
"I came to play!"
We played and I lost, getting 65th or 66th place. I didn't get to play on the second day. It was extremely frustrating. I was young; I don't know what I would do if the same thing happened today, but back then I was pissed. For that guy just to say "I came to play" and not offer any reason, and then for me to miss by one spot, was extremely frustrating.
Steve: My second Top 8 was also Rochester—the win in Los Angeles. My semifinal match with Terry Lau might be one of the only Top 8 matches to ever go to six games. I don't think anyone had ever drawn a game in the Top 8 before. That was the Mono-Black Befoul/Corrupt deck in the Top 8. It's probably the only time in Magic I've ever been threatened to be punched in the face. I was playing against Mike Long. I went first and played a Swamp. He played Pouncing Jaguar. I went Swamp, Dark Ritual, Befoul his Forest so he couldn't pay the echo and would lose the Jaguar too. He tried to put his Pouncing Jaguar in the graveyard and not his Forest. "Nope," I said and pointed to his Forest. Later he ripped a Forest and played his Acridian. I played my fourth Swamp and Befouled the only green source he had to pay the echo with.
And that's when he just started cursing under his breath. He leaned across the table and said, "I could just punch you in the face right now." I said, "Go ahead, you're still not going to win."
Team Pro Tours (Pre–Phoenix Foundation Era)
There had been cards drafted out of boxes, Sealed Deck Prerelease Pro Tours, Booster Drafts, Rochester Drafts, and plenty of late-night team drafting going on throughout the first couple of Pro Tour seasons, but the last major piece of the Limited puzzle was taking those three-person teams that were drafting all night and giving them a chance to ply those skills on the Pro Tour. Pro Tour Washington, DC, in 1999 was followed up a year later with another Team Pro Tour in New York—at Madison Square Garden, no less.
Brian: By that time, Truc and John were moving out of the game, but this was the event we had always wanted—a Team Pro Tour! So we played in it, and the thing is, our Draft chops for that tournament were really, really good but we made the mistake of only practicing Sealed Deck a few times. So that was probably kind of the end. I was still in it for New York, but it was with my second team, Gab Tsang and Igor Frayman.
Dave: Certainly winning Pro Tour Washington, DC, was one of the highlights of my career. It was just a given that I was going to play with Darwin (Kastle). We practiced for all the events together. He was one of the first people in the Boston area who I found was into the competitive scene as much as I was. Rob (Dougherty) had been playing competitively for at least as long as we had at that point. He owned the store that Darwin and I played at the most, and he had a long history with Magic. He seemed like an obvious third, and I felt pretty good that we had an experienced team.
Steve: It was obvious that Dan (O'Mahoney-Schwartz) and I were going to play with Finkel—oh man, was Chris Pikula upset. He expected Jon to play with them. Jon was kind of on Team Deadguy then, even though he still tested and played with me and Dan. The minute me, Dan, and Jon heard about the team PT, we just looked at each other and were like, "Yeah we're playing together." I think Jon eventually had to tell Chris we were two of his closest friends...
...and he wanted to win.
David: Signaling was a big part of that tournament, and you really had to practice that. Being able to practice live with people was really important. Ultimately the teams we played against were really good. I feel like early Magic gets dissed on a lot for not being very good, but I look back at the people who I played in that PT. I know my last round of the Swiss was against Mike Long. Also on that day I played against Randy Buehler, Kai Budde, and a bunch of other people who had played in PT Top 8s. Really good team after really good team.
Gary: We weren't allowed to talk, and one of the cool things about Team Rochester was people who weren't used to communicating through action trying to communicate that way. One of the things we did to help our communication was I painted my nails the five colors of Magic in order to be able to point to someone and indicate what colors they were playing. We're so used to relying on speech to communicate that it was very strange to do it in other ways.
David: A huge part of our success stemmed from the expectation that everyone was going try to have a black-aligned player on the left in draft. It just seemed obvious. Then I went to the next-level assumption that, because everyone was going to have their player on the left draft black, their player on the left would also play black in Sealed. This was perhaps a leap of faith, but I thought it was going be true. On the first day in Sealed, when you got to divide the cards up and decide where your team wanted them to be, the person on the left was gonna preferentially play black because they practiced a lot with it.
Steve: We did practice a lot of Sealed Deck. Jon would usually get the deck where you had to figure out a way to win. My brother got the fast tempo decks, Jon got the Jon decks, and I got the decks where I had to win every round. I had all the best cards. I think that was kind of what we had done.
David: The packs got opened and all the cards got laid out face-up on the table. There was no verbal communication allowed, so there were—I wouldn't say elaborate—hand signals, because they could get too complicated. Signals for what cards we knew we needed to hate draft. We had signals for which card to take first and second and third of the pack. A closed fist might mean "I'm going to take this card not because I want it, but because I don't want Jon Finkel to have it." I watched the Top 4 and the Finals drafts; I think they're both still available online. It's not the greatest footage, but it's really interesting. It's a scramble. It's hard. You can't talk, mistakes get made. Cards get by because you can't decide. You can only process so much information in that environment.
Steve: I was a really close one. We were pretty happy with our semifinals draft. We thought we had better decks, but it obviously didn't work out the way we had hoped. We thought we drafted around them, but they obviously had their own Draft strategy.
David: If I remember correctly, Steve first-picked Pestilence in the semifinals. And I didn't want to be playing against the Pestilence. I think their team didn't deny me an Absolute Grace, which would give all of my creatures protection from black. It put me in this weird spot because of the way certain cards were falling. I am intentionally going white-blue against the black deck, which is normally kind of bad. Then because I got Absolute Grace, he prioritized moving into white, to get all the Disenchant variants to get rid of my enchantment. How many picks do you want to waste to deny him those types of effects to make our other decks worse? There is certainly a lot going on, a lot to process, and mistakes got made. It's something like three seconds per pack, and the time goes really fast—especially when things are dynamically changing.
Brian: For the next team event it was Gab Tsang, myself, and Igor Frayman, and this is kind of sad—I think with two rounds left to play, we needed to win or tie either of the last two rounds to make the Top 4. It didn't happen and that kind of sucked, but it was a super fun event. The big match—the only team we were really worried about was Mike Turian, Scott Johns, and Gary Wise. We were on a collision course with them. That was the second-to-last round and we ended up losing.
Gary: With Team Limited it is a different skill set. Part of that skill set is about having a really great teammate—and I did. I went 11-1 at the Pro Tour that we won, but Mike Turian got the credit from a lot of people for being the mastermind—because Mike did the drafting. And the drafting really is the essence of Team Limited. At that point I really didn't have a local team that I was playing with anymore, and Mike just practiced drafting for all three players.
We had a new Sealed pool every two rounds on Day One. So there were three Sealed decks. Considering how good your record had to be to make Top 4, having one bad pool could be catastrophic. That was the real danger of the format. After the tournament I wrote a long, long, long tournament report called "The Long Road Up"—it is very emo. If you look back at that ESPN video, you'll see that I am not smiling at the end when I'm holding up the trophy and the check. It was just a really stressful situation, but obviously not something I'd trade for anything.
The report I wrote was about my being jettisoned from a team that I was treated really badly by, and Scott was part of that team. I had invited Scott to play with Mike Turian and myself before New York, and he didn't stand in the way of me being excluded from that playtesting team after New York. I was really unhappy with him. I think the article is like 20,000 words or something like that. It's an opus. Who knows? Maybe the fact that I was so upset sharpened me for that tournament and made me want to prove something to the people who let me down. You never know how things could change.
End of an Era
To that point in Magic history, the Pro Tour had been dominated by North Americans. The power had shifted back and forth between the US and Canada, but it was largely North Americans who won at the highest levels of the game. The next year the team event would be won by the Phoenix Foundation, featuring Kai Budde, Dirk Baberowski, and Marco Blume. Their opponents in the finals included a little-known French player named Gab Nassif. It was the start of a new era in the game. But that is a story for another day.