The First Guildmage

Posted in Magic Lifestyle on March 21, 2017

By Corbin Hosler

For most Magic players, a ninth-place finish is the end of something. A finish so close to the Top 8 they can taste it. Just one spot off from an opportunity to win the entire tournament. A finish to be proud of, but rarely a satisfying way for things to end.

For Jeff Zandi, it was the beginning.

The year was 1996, and the Pro Tour was in its infancy. So new, in fact, that one of the ways to play in the first Pro Tour was simply to respond to a postcard (Black Lotus art, of course) from Wizards of the Coast that gave a number to call at Wizards headquarters. A lucky few who called the line would be awarded an invitation.

Like many at the time, Zandi spammed the phone lines as well as he could, but to no luck. However, one player from Zandi's hometown of Dallas, Texas, did get through—and was subsequently able to participate in what is affectionately remembered simply as "Pro Tour One."

That experience energized George Baxter, who made the Top 8 of the Pro Tour, and upon his return to Texas he immediately sought to form a Pro Tour team to compete. The system was simple—be one of the top eight finishers in a series of drafts around the city and join the team. Seeing the opportunity in front of him, Zandi dove right in.

He wound up as the ninth member of an eight-member team. First alternate. A chance to join the team if things broke his way.

That wasn't good enough. So Zandi decided on that day to start his own Magic team.

21 years later, the Texas Guildmages will host their 1,000th meeting in April. Zandi has been there for them all. After all, he's hosted the longest-running Magic night in history, since the group hasn't missed a Tuesday night gathering since their inception.

Today, the Texas Guildmages are part of Magic's vast history and a hidden gem of the community that nonetheless has made invaluable contributions to the game that will live forever. As team members left the area or the game, more have been added over the years; there are currently 40 Guildmages. ("You're a Guildmage for life," Zandi says fondly.)

"Getting the team together and playing and traveling, all that was easy—the hard part was choosing a name," Zandi recalled with a laugh. "I opened it up to suggestions for a month, but nobody gave me any. So I put up a few that I had come up [with] and nobody liked any of them, but they had to choose one so we became the Guildmages."

In an age of super teams and sponsorships and e-sports, the Guildmages still put up quite the resume. They began by renting vans and carpooling to Pro Tour Qualifiers. They were soon carpooling to Pro Tours as well. They were active in the earliest days of the judge community. The team put a member into each of the first 50 Pro Tours.

And there's no lack of star power. David Williams, a Pro Tour Top 8 competitor and well-known Magic personality, was one of the first players to join the team after the original eight. Neil Reeves, a two-time Pro Tour Top 8 competitor and once considered among the best Limited players in the world, hails from the Guildmages. The third member of the Texas Guildmages' "Mount Rushmore," as Zandi termed it, is Hunter Burton, who was once ranked No. 1 in the world. Burton made the Top 8 of Pro Tour Austin in 2009, where he lost in a memorable match against eventual Champion and Hall of Famer Brian Kibler.

The original Texas Guildmages
The original Texas Guildmages at Pro Tour Dallas in 1996. From left, James Murphy, Minh Huynh, James Stroud, Cortney Cunningham, Scot Martin, James Jenkins, Andrew Finch (a guest), and Jason Page. (Photograph by Jeff Zandi.)

The one constant through all the years is Zandi, and the man has truly done it all in Magic. He has a four-digit DCI number on a card that was hand-written by Wizards of the Coast and mailed to him in the game's earliest days. He created the Guildmages and has hosted the team every week for more than 20 years. He has played in a handful of Pro Tours himself. He's been a judge since the creation of the program 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.

Zandi is woven into the fabric of Magic history, and he loves nothing more than to cherish that history with his beloved Guildmages. He keeps meticulous records of the team's meetings. He keeps a binder that every player who attends a meeting "retires" their favorite cards into. He keeps the best draft decks from each month with the winner's signature, storing them so they can be revisited years down the road. He leads a team vote for "Guildmage of the Year," which is immortalized on a plaque.

He manages what is possibly the most extensive memorabilia bulletin board this side of Renton. All the Top 8 pins ever awarded to Guildmages, Burton's Level 4 Pro Player's Club pin, the famous Black Lotus postcard, his original DCI card, a pamphlet from Pro Tour Mainz in 1997, even a piece of the floor from Grand Prix Dallas in 2000 after water damage affected the event. It's a walk through 25 years of Magic history on one wall.

And he's given back to the community at every opportunity. Nothing illustrates this better than the Hunter Burton Memorial Open, a charity tournament that Burton's parents turned to Zandi to help them put on to raise suicide awareness since Burton's death in 2013. The tournament has grown year after year, and Zandi is at the heart of those efforts.

A boisterous and proud father and husband, Zandi is instantly recognizable when he walks into a room. Those who know him can describe him simply—he really loves Magic and the people who play it.

"If you had to rank the people in the world who love Magic the most, Mark Rosewater would have to be first, but Jeff is in the top ten," explained Joe Klopchic, a prolific judge who became an official Guildmage in 2013. "He loves everything about it: the statistics, the history, having people over to his house and being hospitable.

"When I was in college, I didn't think much about drafting over there on Tuesday nights; I was just playing Magic. In retrospect, I really value that friendship because I would have done a lot of different things in my life if it weren't for those Tuesday nights and talking with Jeff. He's a strong pillar of the Texas community. He's always been there and makes people excited to play Magic. Everyone wants to be around him. Even people who didn't know Hunter, they saw that Jeff was running the Memorial tournament and they wanted to get behind the cause. That's the kind of person he is."

The secret to success for the Guildmages is easy to spot—it's the enduring determination of their founder. So, what's his secret? Are there another 1,000 meetings in the cards?

"I don't see an easy way out," he joked. "My pitch to my wife in 1996 was 'surely they won't do this Pro Tour thing forever, so I've got to give it a shot.' Now 20 years later and they're still doing it. What is it that keeps us going? You open the gym and roll the balls out every single week no matter what—it has to be consistent. We had a good draft last Tuesday night, and it's cutthroat. We talked about Modern and Grand Prix San Antonio. You look around the room and you've got a room full of guys excited about competing at a high level. It was another meeting, and a good one.

"It doesn't seem like anything special. But it adds up to something."

For the Magic community Zandi has devoted his life to, it's added up to plenty.

Jeff Zandi
Jeff Zandi

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