Jeff Zandi loved to collect mementos.
It was one of the first things that stood out about Zandi, known to his many friends and colleagues as the Zan-Man. A postcard from the first-ever Pro Tour in which a friend had played. His first DCI card, four digits long and handwritten. Pins and cards and medals, all gathered throughout the years from the Magic community that gave Zan-Man a home—a home he opened up to everyone who needed a place to fit in.
To many, it may have looked like junk on a bulletin board, forgotten relics from tournaments and times long past. To Zandi, each was a memory, a cherished moment in time frozen inside each memento.
Recently, the Magic community joined Zandi's wife, Willa, and son, Lawson, in grieving the tragic and unexpected loss of a man who built the Magic community around him from the ground up. He built a life and a family. He built friendships that stretched far beyond the battlefield, and his impact on those growing up in that community cannot be overstated. And while he may not have known it at the time, he was building something else all along.
When George Baxter returned from Pro Tour New York 1996, he devised a system for local Dallas players to qualify for his pro team. Zandi chased that dream, but wound up finishing ninth in an eight-player race. With one pro team out of reach, Zandi decided to start his own.
That was 1996, and 23 years later, the Texas Guildmages are still going strong. The team has hosted over 1,000 Magic nights, and Zandi was at them all. He opened his house to the group, and they welcomed thousands of players through the years. It is the longest-running continuous playgroup in the game, and it was all thanks to a man who had been chasing the Magic dream ever since he first began calling into Wizards when they were offering random callers a spot at the first Pro Tour.
Zandi did more than chase that dream—he lived it to its fullest potential. He became a judge as soon as the program was created and once judged the Top 8 of the junior division of the Pro Tour. He took up the mantle of tournament organizer when needed, running the PTQ system in several states and giving hundreds of judges their first opportunity. He kept meticulous records of the Guildmages' meetings. There's a binder that every player who attends a meeting "retired" their favorite cards into. There's the best Draft decks from each month with the winner's signature, stored away so they can be revisited years down the road. Every year, Zandi would lead a team vote for "Guildmage of the Year," which is immortalized on a plaque.
When the community lost Hunter Burton to suicide several years ago, Zandi took up the mantle of tournament organizer again and put on the Hunter Burton Memorial Open, an event that is still going strong and will celebrate a dedicated event in Zandi's name during this year's event, March 16–17.
When Zandi passed, the outpouring of support was immediate and widespread. Magic legend David Williams was one of those who counted Zandi's guidance as pivotal in his life.
"Jeff invited me to his home to play and practice with the best local players that he hosted every Tuesday, which would eventually become the Texas Guildmages," Williams shared. "This was special because he saw a fire inside of me and how much I wanted to improve at Magic, but how I was lacking a network of friends that played. He would sometimes drive 30–45 minutes each way to take me back to my dorm.
"In many ways he was a father figure to me. He was kind, wise, loved gaming, told corny jokes. I wished I had a dad like him. So, during one of our chats, I told him I thought he would be a great dad one day, and he told me that I would too. At seventeen, I didn't think much about being a father, but I always knew that when that day came, I would want to be like him. Now, 21 years later, he has an amazing son, Lawson, whom I've had the pleasure of seeing grow up thanks to modern technology, and I have a wonderful daughter, Liliana, who hopefully thinks I'm as awesome as I thought Jeff was."
There are hundreds of stories like Williams's, and Zandi always made sure to stay in touch with everyone he connected with. As he would often say, you're a Guildmage for life.
That goes one step further. The Zan-Man will forever be the first Guildmage, and his legacy will never be forgotten. How could it be, when he gave us so many mementos by which to remember him?