The Oral History of the Magic Dojo

Posted in Feature on June 7, 2016

By Brian David-Marshall

Brian David-Marshall is a New York–based game designer who has been involved with Magic since 1994, when he started organizing tournaments and ran a Manhattan game store. Since then, he has been a judge, a player, and one of the longest-tenured columnists on DailyMTG.com, as he enters his second decade writing for the site. He is also the Pro Tour Historian and one of the commentators for the Pro Tour.

It is easy to take for granted how much Magic content we have available to us on any given day. I was talking to Pro Tour Hall of Famer Kai Budde about the early days of Magic content, and he claimed to have consumed something approaching 100% of all the Magic content produced on a daily basis. Today, even if he had the ability to spend all his time consuming content, he guessed it would be hard to approach even one percent of the content produced in this glorious age of podcasts, streams, articles, and Super Leagues. Of course, it was easy to consume all the content back then, since it could all be found in one simple, magnificent place...the Magic Dojo.

It was the first Magic content site. Long before the Wizards of the Coast site was bringing you daily updates—and if anyone approaches that mythical consumption rate of 100%, it is DailyMTG editor Blake Rasmussen—there was only one place to go to "Study and Grow Strong" if you were obsessed with Magic and the burgeoning Pro Tour scene. I caught up with a handful of the people who were there from the beginning, including the "sensei" himself, Frank Kusumoto, scholar of Magic Rob Hahn, contributor and editor Michael J. Flores, Pro Tour Hall of Famers and Dojo authors Zvi Mowshowitz and Randy Buehler, as well as a couple of surprise cameos.

Before the Dojo

It is hard to fathom, but there was a time when everyone was not connected to the internet by a device in their pockets. Not everyone had an email address yet. You could not just call up the text or image of a Magic card, and you certainly could not just find a decklist online to play at your local tournament. But the Magic bug had bitten good and deep, and the tech yearned to be free. Players flocked to Usenet message boards to talk about the same thing we talk about today: What deck should I play next weekend at the card store?

Frank Kusumoto: I saw Magic cards down at the local hobby shop. There were a bunch of kids there, and they seemed really excited about this card game. I had no idea what it was but I had always been a big Dungeons & Dragons and RPG fan. I took a look at the cards and I bought some. Within a couple months I was really interested in the game and I started doing what I do with most of my hobbies, which is I started figuring out what it was all about. They had a very busy Usenet forum, and I started reading that, but I pretty quickly realized that there wasn't a lot of real information there as far as the signal-to-noise ratio. Maybe one out of every fifteen, or even out of every 20 posts would have some kind of hard information to base some kind of deck-building or playing decision on. That was kind of frustrating.

Randy Buehler: I only played Magic against my roommate for the first six months that I played. There was no outside world. I didn't even know that tournaments existed. Then I discovered a random local tournament because I saw flier in a card store. You know me, I'm a competitive guy, I obviously loved the first tournament that I went to. But then I would wait for another flier. It was probably another six months before I discovered PTQs. I really got hooked on Magic when I discovered that there was a Pro Tour. I discovered this by reading print coverage of Pro Tour New York after the fact.

Rob Hahn: I discovered the internet in college in 1992 because I had a crush on a girl who lived across the country and phone calls were expensive. A friend told me to go to the computer lab and sign up for something called an "electronic mail address." That's how it all began. I discovered the internet and began playing around on it—it was just chat rooms and newsgroups. I graduated, I got a job, and I got into Magic somewhere around 1994. When I got into it, I already knew that the internet existed and I started going to Usenet newsgroups.

Randy Buehler: I started playing PTQs, and I found the Usenet newsgroups and people started posting decklists there. I know specifically that the first time I made the Top 8 of a PTQ, it was with a Necropotence deck that I just took straight off the newsgroup. This was the beginning of Necro Summer. I took the list, went to the PTQ, and there was my first Top 8.

Michael J. Flores: There were Usenet groups and I was on there every day for the Highlander TV series and comic books. There was no Comic Book Resources or Newsarama back then, and I wanted to exchange ideas about plot lines and stuff. I had been [following] Highlander for about two years before I got into Magic on the Usenet.

Zvi Mowshowitz: I started out with a little bit of experience on Usenet at the very tail end of [its popularity]. I got into a handful of discussions—of course, I was a complete nobody—I got no respect, but wasn't really looking for it. I didn't get much out of it. You could get kind of get a feel for what people were thinking vaguely, but there was no consensus. Nobody had any clue what was going on.

Frank Kusumoto: At the same time, in the military I was doing some stuff where they were having the same kind of problems. They would have tons of different messages coming in through message traffic and they were trying to figure out how to sort all these different messages and to give them to the different people who needed to do something with them. One message center might take in 5,000 messages a day. There was one guy sitting on the India desk and there were 40 messages that he might need to read, but the rest of them he didn't. Each different analyst at that time had to go through all 5,000 messages to find out which one he needed. That's really inefficient. And that's the same kind of thing I was looking at on Usenet—how do I get all the stuff in one place where I can look at it?

School Days

One of the seminal pieces of Magic writing that emerged from the noise of the Usenet groups was Rob Hahn's Schools of Magic: an attempt to classify and deconstruct the different ways that Magic was played with the various styles of play being likened to fighting schools from the martial arts movies that Hahn grew up loving.

Michael J. Flores: Schools of Magic was one of two things that were basically life-changing events for me. The other was reading the tournament report from somebody who won a PTQ. A lot of the players around me attended the first Pro Tour—the call-in PT—or were traveling to PTQs. I thought that was too heavy for me, I wasn't that kind of player. Then I read this PTQ report from a kid who won one. Then Rob Hahn won a PTQ. This is the guy who wrote Schools of Magic. Maybe there's some connection between being a good theoretician at Magic and being able to execute in tournaments. After Rob won a PTQ—I didn't know what to do with my life at that point—I thought maybe I would become a professional Magic player. That was actually the connection I made. Then I started to become serious about tournaments.

Rob Hahn: I just started thinking about what works...what is Magic? What is a card game? What are the limiting factors? I wanted to participate in this newsgroup—the internet was just filled with these super-smart nerds. "I am a super-smart nerd," I thought. "Let me impress these other super-smart nerds with this thing I just did for fun." I had no expectation beyond that. It changed my life, I can tell you that. It made Magic an actual career for a little bit. I wrote Schools of Magic and I posted it on the Usenet and the next day I had 400 emails. One of the emails I got was from Frank Kusumoto. You know he was a Naval Intelligence guy?

Frank Kusumoto: What I finally did on the Magic stuff was gather it up. I learned primitive HTML. I started saving [the posts] and making my own pages. I got interested in a few of the decks—I think it was Paul Pantera who posted a lot of stuff on Usenet about Brian Weissman's White-Blue Control deck called "The Deck." And then Rob Hahn started posting Schools of Magic. I started getting interested in those and I started collating all the information that I found in those articles. I started playing those decks in the Denver area, and then I started trying to write up my own little things on them. Then I put together this little website that I decided to call "The Dojo."

Rob Hahn: He wanted to try and figure out a way to use the World Wide Web for collecting and organizing human intelligence for the navy. Before he did that, he wanted to see if the model would work by using it in Magic. Tournament reports work a lot like what he was processing for the navy for human intelligence. He wanted to create this website where people would submit reports as well as deck concepts and ideas. Then he would try to figure out how to organize it and learn how humans use the web so he could apply it to his day job.

In order to do that, he needed some kind of way to get people to come to his website, so he contacted me and asked if he could host Schools of Magic—and I said, "Absolutely, that would be awesome." By then they had become something of a phenomenon. I'd written two versions—maybe three versions. I thought it would be nice to have it just be someplace where it doesn't get lost in the Usenet newsgroups, and that's how the Dojo began. That's why he called it the Dojo (because of Schools of Magic's martial arts theme).

Michael J. Flores: I won my third PTQ. Then Frank Kusumoto wrote the Sligh guide, which had the history and concepts of Sligh prior to Pro Tour 6. [Editor's note: "Sligh" refers to Paul Sligh, who pioneered the concept of a mana curve in the mid '90s.] He talked about these things like the mana curve and how a mono-red deck could compete against better cards. And I thought this was nonsense—everybody knew this couldn't be true. But at least somebody was writing something down that just wasn't garbage. That was the thinking that I had. Then I met Patrick Chapin and he just played the Sligh deck that Kusumoto wrote about, and he made the Top 8 of the Pro Tour. And then I thought there's obviously something going on here. He started writing more histories and deck concept–type stuff, and he gave Rob the impetus to keep Schools of Magic up-to-date and gave it a home at the Dojo. At the time it was actually not thedojo.com, it was Ix.netcom.net/~fkusumot—I still remember that.

Ix.netcom.net/~fkusumot

Word quickly spread of this new site that was collecting the best of the internet, was hosting Schools of Magic, and had the skinny on this brand-new deck archetype replete with "unplayable" cards like Ironclaw Orcs.

Frank Kusumoto: It was about seven or eight months later where I finally had put up a website and I had a few articles on it. I posted a notice on Usenet that there was this website called the Dojo. It was basically just on my Netcom address; they gave you 10 MB of space. I put that up and toiled away at it for five or six months and then people started coming to my web page to look for articles. A couple of the guys were still posting their articles on Usenet, but they would also send a courtesy copy straight to me so I could post it right to the website. So I didn't have to go hunting on the Usenet to [find] it.

Zvi Mowshowitz: Then I discovered the Dojo. It was just night and day. At first it was just this giant mass of stuff. You had this black screen and piles and piles of links from various people doing various things. There was no real rhyme or reason to it; Frank just put on whatever he thought was most interesting. There were pages and you could go as deep as you wanted. The best stuff was mostly tournament reports. People wrote tournament reports and they put a lot of effort into them. That was the highlight. That's how you learned about a deck and what it was supposed to do. Today we would have a deck tech and explain why each card is there. I liked it. People told stories and you could sort of get a real sense of how a deck felt and what the guy was thinking as opposed to this mechanical "here's the solution at the back of the book." And then you did your own thing with it.

Michael J. Flores: I actually didn't like Frank, or what he was doing at the beginning. I thought he was copying Rob. Rob was my guy, he's the guy that got me to care about tournament Magic and stuff. I didn't really understand what Frank was doing at the beginning. Frank was doing this publisher model. He was such an amazing [pioneer]. Frank's idea was that in the Usenet groups there was some stuff that was good, and his goal was to go and find that stuff and put it in what was going to be the Dojo. He would just cull Usenet articles, and he called it "The Best of the Internet" or something. The only unique content that he would have was decklists that he would get hanging out on IRC. Someone like Casper—that was Dave Williams—would tell him about a Tradewind Rider deck, and then he would put it on the site. You had the decklist area, which was pretty much just buddies from IRC, and then he would go into Usenet to read all the articles—whatever they were called back then—and whichever ones were good he would copy and put them on the Dojo. The only unique content for the most part was deck histories and concepts.

Rob Hahn: It was fun as hell. It was all-text, black background. I think we had a logo, which was the yin-yang symbol. We had a title—the Dojo—and it was just text links down the page. Tournament reports in one section, decklists in another. People would just send an email, and we literally had to hand-code an HTML page just to get it this way. This was before WordPress or any sort of content management system was in effect. We were hand-coding everything. I remember the content being really quite good because it took so much manual labor to do it. Frank did most of it—I did some. He was such a trooper. At that time [it was] just a website. It was just a hobby he was doing as an experiment to get better at HTML and to learn how to organize content. I was doing it because I was bored with law school. There was no thought of anything else. That comes much later. We were inventing it as we went. It was just something we did for fun. And that didn't change until I started working on The Duelist.

Michael J. Flores: I think his internet bill was for $15,000 or something because they didn't have any concept of making a commercial website like a regular person would make today. He just had an insane amount of traffic. I don't know what happened with that, but he just had an insane bill. Huge bill. He was making what would ultimately become a commercial website.

Frank Kusumoto: My website started getting 3,000 or 4,000 hits a day. That might not sound like much, but that kind of traffic at the time—personal web spaces were not supposed to be getting several thousand hits a day. I got the bill one month and it was for $500. It was because I had used up some ungodly amount of traffic. I used up like one gigabyte of traffic or something like that. I looked into it, and opening my own domain and getting my own web address was gonna cost me like $150. So that's what I did.

TheMagicDojo.com

The Magic Dojo was growing up. No longer was it just a clearinghouse for the best of the Usenet or a place where larger theory pieces were housed. It started to become not only a place that people wanted to visit every day, but a place that aspiring Magic writers wanted to see their names appear. It was the birth of an era of Magic writers that propelled many of the game's biggest names into an international spotlight.

Frank Kusumoto: That gets us to the point where the Dojo was still mostly for strategy articles. Some people were submitting stuff directly to the website and we had our own domain. I talked to a few other people, and I decided—let's just try to make a website where it's reporting on tournament Magic play and the emphasis is on what are people playing and what works, and now that we've got this Pro Tour thing going on, to concentrate on that.

There were like three or four other websites that had Magic news or something, but I was ambitious. I basically wanted to put them all out of business. Not that any of them were really in business. Everything at that time was basically just a hobbyist website. The other thing that I decided was that I wanted to put Usenet out of business. Having to go through all that stuff every day—where it used to be one out of every 20 was something that would be worth reading, it was now like one out of every 100. I didn't want to have to go through them. Let's make a site where everybody who wants to post something...they'll send it here. I knew that if I was gonna be able to do that, it would have to be a website that was updated at least five times a week.

Michael J. Flores: "The History of UW Control" was the first long meditative thing I ever wrote, and Frank put it on the front page. It was the first time someone ever had anything on the front page. I thought what I had written was just going to go in the Deck Histories and Concepts section—where he had the history of Necro, the history of Sligh, etc.—but he put it on the front page. I think from that perspective, not intentionally, I was the first Dojo writer.

Frank Kusumoto: I was very active on IRC at the time, and the guys on IRC were always talking about what happened at tournaments, so I would ask them to write reports. I got most of them to start sending them in. Then what would happen on IRC is their friends would make fun of them for sending in an incomplete report. So then there was some peer pressure for them to send in something at least halfway readable. Then some guys started writing good reports and they liked seeing their tournament reports up on a website where everyone was gonna read it. Then people started becoming famous in the national Magic circles because they would go to tournaments, and someone would say, "Oh yeah, I know you. I read your tournament report on the Dojo."

That would create a positive feedback loop with that person. They would write another report. That was just a lucky thing with what I was doing with the website at the time. There was nobody else interested in doing that, so there was no competition. And that's how it really took off with user interaction.

Zvi Mowshowitz: I was writing for the Dojo not because I set out to write for them, because who would've thought my stuff would be worthy? Somehow Frank got cc'd on the Team Legion mailing list. I still don't know who did that. Somehow the publisher of all Magic information was being cc'd on every email being sent to my Magic team. I didn't notice. It's not like we were accomplishing much or had the next big great broken deck. It was just a bunch of random people. I don't even know who my teammates were. Like who the hell is Raphaël Lévy?

I wrote one and he replied, "Hey do you mind if I post this?"

"Okay, if you want to." It was directed at my team and had sample decklists off the top of my head—typed standing up at a computer. That was how I had internet access—in the lobby of my dorm hall. I didn't even have time to sit down and think. I was using Tempest block cards that had just been previewed. One of the decklists was not 60 cards. I counted wrong...I was in a hurry...I didn't think it was gonna be published. There's 58, whoops!

And he publishes this! He says it's really good. It happens I have two deck ideas that nobody had talked about yet. One of them was a Pox-ish deck, and I think I had a Mulch deck? The details don't matter, right? Neither deck amounted to anything, neither deck was any good. But I didn't think they were when I posted them—they weren't for publication.

Frank Kusumoto: When Justin Gary won Nationals, I went up and talked to him about three rounds before he won it. We had a nice conversation and I asked him if he read the Dojo. He said, "Oh yeah, I read it every day." I said, "It would be really great if you could write a tournament report for us."

I think he was only sixteen years old at the time, and he was really anxious about it. I said not to worry if it needed editing. I would take care of it. He ended up winning and writing a great article. He sent me an email about ten years ago, and he thanked me for doing that because it sparked his whole interest in analysis and thinking about games in a different way. He said it basically led to his career in working with games.

Randy Buehler: Once the Dojo was there...that really lit my fire to get onto the Pro Tour. A PT would happen and it would be like a month or two after the fact before you would get to read about it in a print magazine. The next day, here's a half-dozen tournament reports. My most enduring image of the Dojo was after a tournament happened and the sidebar is like first place—linked tournament report; third place—linked tournament report; fifth place—linked tournament report; eleventh place—linked tournament report. Half the Top 8 and most of the people who finished in the money would write reports. I would get to experience those tournaments the week after. I would be reading all about Brian Hacker's adventures. Hacker is the writer I remember most vividly because he really painted the scene. Hacker would talk about him and his boys running up and down the Cali coast, crushing tournaments. He had a flair for color. His best article is "Pool Halls of Magic," for sure. It talked about the late-night draft scene and now I knew that I wanted to qualify for this...and if I did qualify for this I couldn't leave until Monday. Just from this image of the scene painted so vividly in these tournament reports on the Dojo.

Brian Hacker: The article that people like the most was the one comparing Magic to old pool halls. That article—I had read The Hustler and was really into the books and the movies at that time, and it was kinda on my mind—was more abstract than most of the articles that I had read. Because it was comparing it to something else and it kind of got more into directly how I felt about this stuff than some of the articles I had written previously. I was actually not as confident in the article when I sent it out. I thought, "It's not really directly about an event, it's really more of an essay; I wonder how this will go over."

I remember Frank Kusumoto wrote me and said this is the best thing you've written and I thought, "Cool." And I remember the response to it being kind of different. It was the most overt I had ever made my feelings about Magic. So when I bump into someone randomly who read anything from that long ago, they will usually mention that one as something that stuck out for them.

Randy Buehler: That summer I finally won a PTQ. And the first thing I did? As soon as I qualified, I wrote up that tournament report and sent it to Frank to post on the Dojo. I felt like I had arrived. It was just wanting to be a part of this awesome community. I was proud of my deck. I had an offbeat deck in a Block Constructed season, and the play I used to win it...I think the title I gave it was "How I Qualified for the PT with Soul Echo," which was an obscure sideboard card that I had for an obscure situation it actually came up in the win-and-in.

If I'm being truthful, I was mildly disappointed that it didn't generate much buzz. Obviously I'm the hero of my own narrative, but nobody knew who I was. I'm just some guy who won a PTQ. I have no memory of getting feedback on that article. It was really the next one I wrote that I get all the feedback on.

Frank Kusumoto: Then I went to the first PT [held] in Chicago, and by that time almost everyone knew what the Dojo was, and I started schmoozing with them to get them to write tournament reports. That was my basic modus operandi; I would go up to them and say, "Hi, my name is Frank, maybe you've seen my website," and give them a business card. "Do you think you could write a little tournament report?"

Randy Buehler: People were starting to get the sense that there was a decent cluster of players in Pittsburgh. Three of them made the Top 8 in GP Toronto, and the tournament after that was Pro Tour Chicago. Which I won. My biggest fear was that people would think I just got lucky. My tournament report—I actually have a printout of it in a book my wife made for me from all my tournament writings from that first year—is fifteen pages printed.

A lot of it was me just trying to prove that I was legit and that I didn't fluke into this. I felt like we had the right deck for the weekend and that I played it really well and earned it. So I wrote it all up for the Dojo, partially because that's what you did—that's what everyone did—and partially because I wanted the community to see me as a reasonably worthy PT champ. Probably in the back of my mind I was trying to talk myself into the idea that I was worthy too.

The Decks to Beat, aka Dojo Decks

Believe it or not, there was a time that you could go to a Magic tournament and have no reasonable expectation of what your opponent was playing—or even how many cards. The early days of Magic were the Wild West, and the sheriff that imposed order on that lawlessness was known as the Magic Dojo—with a little section called "The Decks to Beat."

Frank Kusumoto: That was probably the most controversial thing that was put on the Dojo. I kind of just did it on a whim. I wasn't really sure if it would go over that well. I would go through the tournament reports—probably 60 or 70 of them—looking at the tournament winners, basically for what I thought was a good deck, informed by what the pro players on IRC were telling me. I just posted up like ten lists and said here, these are "The Decks to Beat." That just opened up the biggest can of worms. A lot of people got mad because within a few months they were going to tournaments where everyone would have a copy of—and this is what they were calling them—a "Dojo deck." I would tell them that they are not Dojo decks, they are just decks that people send in. They didn't even call them "Decks to Beat." They just called them Dojo decks. I got a lot of hate mail, but I had a lot of conversations with people, especially pro players.

Rob Hahn: You had such an enormous advantage if you had the internet back then because you were able to go and find decklists and techniques and strategies that other people had already used successfully, that people in your market had no idea about. The other piece of this was from a trading standpoint. You knew what cards everyone was going to want before everyone else did. Juzam Djinn was a great card, but I traded it for a set of dual lands because that was far more important and ultimately a far more valuable tool. You would learn about new tech and new metagame shifts before anybody else.

Randy Buehler: From the perspective of a team trying to win Pro Tours and Grand Prix, your gauntlet would be, "Okay, let's go to the Dojo and here's the section called the Decks to Beat. That's what we will test against, that's what we'll beat." It was useful as a Pro Tour testing team, because you knew what people were going to show up with. People definitely went to the Dojo and got the decks—not because they were lazy but because those were the best decks. Tech was kind of hard to come by. Those were the public-consensus best decks, and that's why people would play them. You could absolutely deduce what people were playing based on the first couple of turns, because you had this mental file of Dojo decks in your head.

Frank Kusumoto: The pro players were split into three different camps. One of the camps said they didn't like the Dojo decks because they thought they stunted creativity. But those people were definitely in the minority. There was another camp that said they liked those decks because they could use that knowledge to metagame what was going on in the tournament scene. It actually gave them a more stable environment to figure out what they should play to try and win. And then there was another group that said it was great because it was advancing the strategy of the game, and the strongest decks were playing against the strongest decks and people were figuring out better ways to do things.

Michael J. Flores: There were two types of decks. There were the decks you generated yourself and the decks you got from an exterior source. That source was the net, aka netdecking—and at that time, "Dojo" subbed in for "net." The Dojo was more pervasive in Magic than any other source of information.

Rob Hahn: In a way, I feel like the Dojo essentially gave birth to the idea of the metagame. Before then, we didn't really talk about that...I'm trying to remember where I heard that phrase "the metagame" for the first time. I'm pretty sure it was somewhere on the Dojo. We started talking about how there was the game...and then there was the metagame.

Randy Buehler: During my first year on the PT, Finkel got Player of the Year and I got second, but we are very, very different players. I think the existence of Dojo decks benefited my style—maybe that only became possible once the Dojo existed. I never really thought about it before, but maybe I came along at a time when I was willing to play 40 to 60 hours of Magic a week leading up to a Pro Tour. With the rise of the testing team that was going to approach it almost like a job—put in the hours and do the work—having something like the Dojo enabled the type of behavior that allowed [this testing] to be productive.

Frank Kusumoto: That was one of the big reasons that I spent money to go to Pro Tours. I would beg people to publish their decklists to put up on the Dojo because I knew that was what was the big draw. And it worked. I thought it was important to have those decklists up as a draw to get people to come to the website, but also that people were gonna understand how to play Magic better.

Font Size Matters

It may have seemed that the code was broken on the homepage from time to time, with the links appearing in different sizes. It turns out that was all part of Kusumoto's ongoing experiments in not only how to disseminate information, but how to extract it.

Frank Kusumoto: My editorial policy at that time was...take [World Champion] Jakub Slemr. He would write a pretty good tournament report without a decklist, and I would say, "Jakub, this is a pretty good report, but I'm gonna post it low on the page unless you send in a decklist. If you send in a decklist I will post it at the top of the page." Then, in that case, he sent me a decklist.

I would post almost anything and everything—and he was pretty famous by then—but if you have a decklist in it I will post it right there at the top of the page and I'll even put it in a slightly bigger font for your tournament report. That was basically my leverage. People wanted to have their tournament report on the top of the front page, so they would send in their decklist.

Randy Buehler: Getting your article on to the front page became a status symbol. They were just links—text and link; here's the PT Chicago headline with Randy Buehler's article in first place, that's it—but having that link on the front page was something you really wanted.

Frank Kusumoto: [The font size] was very deliberate in just about every single instance. And people noticed that stuff. A lot of that came from my experience working with military web pages. How do you make something stand out? Or how do you indicate something is slightly more important? There was actually a coding system with little gif balls for decks. Different codings for tournament reports—like pre-emojis—but they were just balls of color and sometimes they were animated or something.

Zvi Mowshowitz: He published TurboZvi on the front page in giant letters. He was always using different fonts, it's like some kid playing with HTML, [size] eighteen over here, fourteen over here, and the numbers moved up and down and the buttons were various colors. They weren't always the color of the deck in question, but usually they were. It's just so much more fun that everything was just a guy doing what felt right at the time. And you can enjoy it on that basis. We didn't have to be professionals, and I look back on that and I kind of miss it.

TurboZvi is a deck built around Dream Halls. It turned everything into Force of Will except that they went to your graveyard, which was really important for this deck to work. I was sitting around thinking about how do you make this card work? It looked really powerful and inQuest (which was a magazine) called it the worst card in Stronghold. It looked broken to me, I just didn't know why. So I decided, "Okay, I'm gonna play this card and the game is going to end, why?"

The idea was that you get Dream Halls out, cast Mana Severance, and get all the lands out of your deck. Now your deck just has a lot of card drawers in it. I discard one card to cast another card. I draw 2.5 cards—or is it 2.2 cards?—and you just keep going. Eventually use Gaea's Blessing to reshuffle and you have the bare exact minimum necessary to kill them: an Inspiration and a Lobotomy. The deck takes 40 minutes to kill someone—literally 40 minutes because you have to shuffle all the time. Every time you trigger Blessing you have to shuffle your deck, and you have this Inspiration-Lobotomy thing to kill someone, and you have to do that like 20 times. It takes a long time.

Michael J. Flores: I think it's very meaningful, because it made his career as a writer. That was Zvi saying you could play these cards in this way and ruin Standard. That was a moment. After that, there was Zvi...before that, there wasn't Zvi yet.

Zvi Mowshowitz: So I built this deck, took it to a tournament, and went 3-1—I lost to Finkel, as you do—and a teammate took it to French nationals and did pretty well with it. So I wrote about it and I sent it to Frank and he posted it with the (large) headline "New Killer Deck: TurboZvi." Back then you could name decks anything you wanted.

Frank Kusumoto: It was always left up to the intuition of the reader. Some people just picked up on it because they could see that all the five-color green decks had a certain little emoji ball that was associated with all those decks. There's a certain little emoji ball associated with all the Necro decks. That was the whole part of my experiment with the Dojo, and it did get translated into what I was doing with the military. How to let somebody scan the page quickly and find the piece of information they needed. Then to go read it and report that information to somebody else and then use that information for whatever purpose. How do you use that information in the timeliest fashion, not only for military operations but if you're [researching] into what the tournament scene is? How do you find the stuff you need the most quickly?

I had a sticky that was on top of my monitor, and it said something like "How can I make a link say everything that it needs to say?" There was another question under it, "How can I make it say more?"

The Deck Doctor Is In...The Singularity

One of the most popular features by Zvi Mowshowitz—besides his legendarily flavorful set reviews—on the the Dojo was a Deck Doctor clinic that may or may not have threatened to destroy human life as we knew it had young Zvi not valiantly stepped into the breach to save us.

Luis Scott-Vargas: Back in the early days of the Magic internet, there was only one place to go: the Dojo. As a new-fledged Magic player, it had everything I could imagine wanting, including a Deck Doctor column written by a very accomplished deck builder: Zvi Mowshowitz. He would let people send in decklists, and would critique them and offer suggestions on improvements.

Zvi Mowshowitz: It was about giving back. I wanted to see people's wacky ideas, I wanted to build connections, build community. But this was before people had access to good lists. And this was before people understood the principles of good deck building. And this was before anyone was offering to help them. There was a huge unmet need for this. And my price was zero. I said just send it in and I will help everyone.

It was the most intense interaction with the public that I've ever had. And that maybe anyone has ever had in Magic in some ways...I reached the email singularity. Where you literally can't answer your email. It's physically impossible. I'm on Microsoft Outlook and the emails are coming in. I'm just at my computer; that's all I'm doing, reading the email, giving it some thought, replying back, and by the time I'm done, I'm just falling further behind. I was only in the singularity for two days—maybe three. It didn't take me much longer than that to get out from under it. I answered everyone; that is what I said I would do.

Luis Scott-Vargas: That sounded great to me, and I ended up sending him multiple truly abysmal lists. Remember, I was some random teenager, still almost a decade away from playing in my first Grand Prix, and Zvi was a famous Magic pro. He took the time to offer me good advice on the decks I sent in, and I can still remember the lists.

One was a black-red removal deck that tried to kill all the opponent's creatures with burn and Terrors, and use Yawgmoth's Will to do it all again. He gently pointed out that there were more broken things you could do with Yawgmoth's Will, and maybe I just wanted some finishers instead.

The other deck I sent in involved the original printing of Tron lands, as they were only in Antiquities at the time. I guess that must have made it Vintage, and there's no way it was remotely competitive. Still, I had dreams of using Crop Rotation to get Urza's Tower and fuel giant Mind Warps. I have no idea how Zvi could have made that better, but I do remember him trying. I don't know where those decks ended up, but the whole experience was a highly positive one for me, and I remember being very excited that the great Zvi would offer me—me!—advice on my decks. I still was very far away from anything remotely competitive, but this certainly helped me get deeper into Magic, and I'm glad I took the time to write in—and that he responded.

Zvi Mowshowitz: That's cool to hear. I wonder if he had puns in the emails. That is the moment I was thinking about when I decided to do this column. The idea that people out there would get help and they would appreciate it and grow strong and we would build up our community. There were thousands of people who wrote in. I know that those people have kept playing. There are a number of times I have shaken somebody's hand at a Pro Tour or Grand Prix and they said, "I wrote to you and you helped me, and that was great!"

Hitting the Paywall

In the early days of the Dojo, there was nary a thought to getting paid for writing about Magic. It was just part of being in the community and growing the knowledge base of the game. But as the Pro Tour demanded more time from its competitors—and those competitors looked for more ways to underwrite their fledgling pro careers—compensation became an inevitable part of the landscape. It also allowed other sites financial leverage with which to lure away some of the big names.

Frank Kusumoto: The big thing that happened was Mark Justice started up his website. I had a short conversation with him at one of the Pro Tours held on the Queen Mary, and he basically let it be known that he was going to be telling the best writers on the Dojo that they could come over and write for his website and he would pay them. At that point I realized that the sport, and the associated writing that goes with it, was hitting a more mature phase. The Dojo, at that time, was not set up to pay writers. There were a few writers who were being paid, but they were the same exact same guys that Mark Justice was zeroing in on too. A lot of those guys started going over, and most of those people sent me an apology, either on IRC or through email. To all of them I said, "I wish you the best of luck." I was happy that they were getting paid for it. "The Dojo will do just fine, it'll be different without you"—and that's when things started changing.

Michael J. Flores: I remember I was playing a team event and Frank just [shows up with] this duffel bag full of boxes and hands it to me. The idea that you'd be compensated? I had no idea. I just wrote this stuff and it ended up on the Dojo instead of on Usenet. He handed me all this product and said it was my compensation for the writing I had done. I didn't want to take it. It felt weird. [Charles "Tuna" Hwa] and Al Tran were like "Take the boxes!" So we took the boxes. That was kind of the beginning for me.

Frank Kusumoto: By that time, if people were going to a PTQ and they made the Top 8, they would write their tournament report. As long as they were playing a competent deck, there would be some information that would be relevant to someone else trying to play in a PTQ. And there could be several hundred guys playing in the next PTQ and they wanted to read that article by that guy. There were enough of those articles coming in that I didn't have to have these articles coming in from the top players who were the best writers. It became more of like an information clearinghouse on what was happening at PTQs. That was probably the most successful period for the Dojo. Right in that time when people were trying to monetize the writing, there were a lot of people getting interested in getting on the Pro Tour—so they had to win a PTQ—and there were tons of PTQ tournament reports, and a lot of them had good information.

Zvi Mowshowitz: At this point I'm in college and I'm struggling to get a B in my writing class—they're telling me I don't know how to write—and yet people seem to like the stuff I'm writing here. I sent a few more articles in and then [Frank] said that I needed to have a finish; I needed to have a result. Then I get one, I Top 8 a Grand Prix. I write a report, it goes on the front page, and then I'm writing articles all the time. And that lasts for a while. Doesn't occur to me that I should be getting paid. That's not what it's about, we're a community, we give back. We contribute, we gain fame, we share our ideas, we put our imprint on things and we get credit for the things we've done. [Getting paid] just didn't occur to me. In fact, Frank brought it up and told me he had sent me some product. "Ah, cool. Weird. Why would you pay me? Okay, sure, if you want."

Randy Buehler: I made money at my second PT, and I think I proved that it wasn't a fluke. I started going to Grand Prix, and made the Top 8 seven times in the first year that I started going to them. I was right in the thick of the Player of the Year race. I had the lead and then Jon Finkel won a PT and he took the lead. I had a chance to take a lead back at Worlds, but he made Top 8 and I finished 12th. Every time I would go to an event, I was sending articles into the Dojo, until...

[Frank] wanted to try to start compensating people. I don't think I ever got cash from the Dojo. I guess it really was my first year where other rival websites started saying you could have a Magic content–based website that will attract people and use it to sell cards. I took a sabbatical from grad school—my notes for my classes were just full of decklists at this point—and decided to see if I was going to be a professional Magic player. In my head I'm trying to figure out if I can make enough money, and David Doust called up and said he wanted me to write for his site and he would pay me. It was really Doust who I left for, because he put together a package deal for the whole team. I was really trying to do my best to make a whole team viable. I think we negotiated something like $800 a month for the whole team, plus discounted product purchases. That was the beginning of the exodus of the headline writers to other sites.

Zvi Mowshowitz: People came along and said we can pay you more than this if you jump ship to our website. The idea of people getting paid to write was pretty new. If someone offers you $100 for a column instead of $50, that's a huge jump for someone in college. I wasn't earning a living and I could use some Magic card money. This is how we survive. I already knew this is what I wanted to do with my life—at least for a while. Wizards wasn't hiring, because Wizards is never hiring (until it is), and I knew it was gonna be a while and I needed money. It was hard to say no to that.

Life on the Bubble

The Dojo was the go-to resource for PTQ players and still had a stable of known writers. It remained the number-one destination website for all things Magic. In an era of internet IPOs ("initial public offerings," or stock market launches), that was bound to attract someone to come along and blow a couple of bubbles.

Michael J. Flores: I don't remember what Rob was doing at the time, but he went to WotC to work for The Duelist. He had a falling-out there and he went from Seattle to Denver, which is where Frank lived. This was like '99 and the internet boom was just about to start. And he said, "I'm going to turn the Dojo into an IPO." At this point Frank had been doing it for three or four years, and I think he was burned out. The Dojo was basically his second job and he was just like, "Take it."

Frank Kusumoto: I was committed to the idea that I was trying to destroy Usenet because it was inefficient. Near the end, for several months I would be getting between 25 and 70 articles each day. I would do that every day. Sometimes I would do that twice a day, 30 in the morning and 30 in the evening. It became a full-time job.

At that time, Rob Hahn came up with the idea maybe we should turn this into some kind of internet business. I was like, okay, that's fine, and his idea was to open up an internet company that was based on creating communities. In retrospect I still think it's a pretty good idea. What the Dojo was at that time when it transitioned over was basically a heavily moderated forum. And there was one moderator— me.

Rob Hahn: I called this friend, I told him the whole thing, and he said we could raise money for that...so that's kind of what happened. On the way back from Seattle, I stopped by Frank's house and signed a bunch of legal documents, creating a company. I tried to professionalize it and get in on that action. That's kind of what happened.

Michael J. Flores: Rob and Stefano Kim raised some seed money and Frank handed over the day-to-day operations. They hired Dave Price to be the first full-time editor-in-chief/manager. This concept of actual Dojo columnists was created—people who were supposed to write articles once a week or something, but they were all erratic at it. Their revenue model of the time was that they had three card vendors paying four or five thousand dollars a month for a rotating banner on top. Someone did not pay one month and it was devastating to their revenue.

Frank Kusumoto: When Dave Price came in as the first editor, he'd been doing it for a few weeks, and he came onto IRC and said, "Frank, I don't know how you did this."

"Yeah that's kind of why I got burnt out on it."

Michael J. Flores: They could not pay Dave, and he left. Then Al Tran bootstrapped it with Rob. They were living there and not getting paid for a bunch of months. This was like '98–'99 and at some point they asked me to become a real writer at the Dojo—like a real columnist. In March 1999 I wrote "Who's the Beatdown?" It was like my third column ever. I did not write many columns at that point. They offered to pay me $2,000 for the entire summer to come to New York.

"Will I still have my column?" "Yes you'll still have your column, but we won't pay you for it as we are paying you this money instead." This was all kinds of shady. "Can you bring your own computer?" Crazy stuff like that.

I was 22 years old making these decisions. To the outside world, everyone was just complaining about how terrible it was compared to when Frank was running it. Then one day some investors came in, saw this apartment that was full of Asian guys who all went to Ivy League schools huddled over computers, and handed Stefano Kim $2.5 million. That was the second round of seed money and we got fancy offices on 35th and Park Avenue. I quit law school to save the Dojo for $45,000 a year. I did that for like six months, and then the Dojo went poof for me.

I didn't stay, but Al and Tuna stayed. We didn't have fancy offices anymore, and I moved on with my life. They sold the Dojo to USA Network and Rob became the general manager of SyFy [then known as SCI FI]—a lot of people don't know that. They had an influx of cash from being at SyFy, and Al said I needed to write again, and I said "But I hate Rob."

Me, Rob, and Stefano had a big falling-out. Part of it was that I was a kid and I didn't really understand that the business world isn't the same as just being friends with everybody, which is what we were before then. We had a falling-out and Al was just like, "You need to come back and do this for me."

Rob Hahn: We sold to USA Network because SyFy was having a lot of problems and there was a lot of overlap in those audiences. We were branching out into comics and other things related to Magic—we thought comics and then ultimately video games. That was something SyFy had huge interest in, and they bought us. And then the dot-com thing crashed and the company just laid off everybody. That's what happens. I always wonder what would've happened if we hadn't sold to them, because we were profitable, we didn't need to sell to them. Could the Dojo have stayed forever and ever? I don't know, [but it's] entirely possible. But because they bought it, they owned the URL—they own everything lock, stock, and barrel. That's how that whole chapter came to an end. I feel like StarCityGames.com kind of picked up where we left it off, but that's the long and the short of it. We got bought by Barry Diller, and when the first internet bubble collapsed, they fired everybody.

Michael J. Flores: Then there was no Dojo after that.

Zvi Mowshowitz: Frank had this particular history and spirit of doing stuff for the love of the game. Without him it was really hard to maintain that. It became a website and a business like any other at that point. It didn't feel special. It was still the best that was for a while—people did a really good job. Somehow Frank made it a forum that wasn't terrible. Had just the right amount of curation where he said, "I will read what you have written and if it isn't terrible—if you have said reasonable things—I will put it in the appropriate section with the appropriate font size." You might deserve eight-point font, you might deserve twelve-point font, you might deserve sixteen-point font. You might make it on the main page. Because people didn't have this ethos of "I am giving you content and I should be paid for it," everyone came to the Dojo and considered it an honor just to be there. We got the best of both worlds for a while, and then that stopped happening. Was it ever going to be commercially viable? Probably not. But a lot of things that are worth having are not commercially viable. You can have a patron like Frank who cares enough.

The Dojo helped carry the game from the '90s into the 2000s and bolstered a generation of players and content creators to be strong and scholarly—including future editors of the Sideboard, DailyMTG, Brainburst, and StarCityGames.com, to name a few. Not to mention a certain Hall of Famer who has since found more broken things to do with Yawgmoth's Will.

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