In early 1996, Magic: The Gathering was just under three years old, but Organized Play was just taking its first wobbly steps. There had been a couple of World Championships, a US Nationals, and scattered local tournaments offering collections of the Power Nine and complete sets of Legends as prizes. Homelands had just come out, and there was this new format called Type 2 that was scuffling along behind a format in which you could Fork an Ancestral Recall, eat all your Moxen, and then Berserk your gigantic Atog.
Still, we were having fun even if nobody knew quite where it was all going—until an ad appeared in the pages of The Duelist for something called "The Magic: The Gathering Black Lotus Pro Tour." It was billed as a professional tournament with bigger cash prizes than anyone had ever seen for playing a game.
That event took place 20 years ago this February, and it had a profound effect on what we thought of as tournament Magic. Today, Wizards of the Coast gives away millions of dollars every year to an elite cadre of the game's best players through Grand Prix, Pro Tours, and the Pro Players Club, but back then, a tournament with a $12,000 first prize was unprecedented. I interviewed a handful of people who were at that event in an attempt to capture the oral history of the tournament.
Joining me to share their memories from that event are:
- Richard Garfield, the inventor of Magic: The Gathering.
- Skaff Elias, one of the original Magic playtesters and the first Magic Brand Manager. He pushed the idea of Magic as an intellectual sport.
- Mark Rosewater, the current Magic Head Designer, who has discussed his role at the Pro Tour on two podcasts. Those can be found here and here.
- Elaine Chase, the current Senior Director of Global Brand Strategy and Marketing for Magic: The Gathering. Before her long journey at Wizards, she was a competitor at the event.
- Charlie Catino, who, along with Skaff, was one of the first people to playtest Magic. In his role as an R&D Director, he has been responsible for Duel Masters for the past fifteen years.
- Jon Finkel is a Pro Tour Hall of Famer who has been playing at the highest level throughout the 20 years of the Pro Tour.
- Graham Tatomer, a Santa Barbara winemaker who won the Junior Division of that first Pro Tour.
- Michael Loconto, a Worchester social worker who defeated Bertrand Lestree in the finals of the first Pro Tour to become the very first Magic: The Gathering Pro Tour Champion.
Before the Black Lotus Pro Tour
Skaff: I came to be involved with Magic sheerly through pure luck. Richard Garfield was a fellow grad student in the math department at Penn. He had us all play games with him, and one of the games was this little thing he was working on for Wizards called "Magic." I think I was the third person to play it. And basically I have been playing it ever since.
Graham: It just turned out that Santa Barbara was kind of a hot spot for the game right when it came out. For Limited Edition (Alpha) and Limited Edition (Beta) we got an unusually high amount of players and actual cards. I was really drawn in by the fact that you got to make your own deck and that there were a lot of different avenues to take. There was this competitive factor to it that I liked as well. I was fifteen or sixteen years old when I got involved—around the release of Unlimited Edition. I was at the tail end of high school, where it felt like I didn't have that much to actually do. There was plenty of time to build decks and play against each other in local tournaments.
Elaine: Before the first Pro Tour, I was pretty active in the New York competitive scene. Gray Matter Conventions ran $1,000 tournaments at the time, and I played in those. I played in all sorts of communities in New York City, New Jersey, Upstate New York....Magic at that time was a huge part of my life, and I would spend multiple days a week at multiple locations playing the game.
Charlie: I was one of the original playtesters for Richard Garfield's game. I basically played Magic before anyone else played Magic. I had a lot of experience and obviously, like all the players later on, when I first got into Magic I immediately realized what an awesome game it was and how much fun I had playing it. I just loved it so much and I dove incredibly deeply into it.
Michael: A lot of us played at SMK Collectibles in Hudson, Massachusetts. I remember buying Antiquities booster packs; that was the set that was out when we started to play. I'm sure everybody has a story about running to the store and hoping that there would be packs there. Unfortunately it wasn't Unlimited. We used to run a lot of tournaments for the store. Jim Lemire and I would be the judges. At the time, other than New York, the place to be was Hudson, Massachusetts.
Mark: I got hired by Wizards of the Coast in October 1995. I learned shortly afterwards from Skaff Elias that he was starting up a Pro Tour. Because I had been working freelance for Wizards, I wasn't allowed to play in tournaments. I told Skaff that I wanted to be involved, and he made me the liaison to R&D.
Jon: I was living in England when Magic came out. I was either fifteen or sixteen years old and I went to this local game store called Fun and Games. I walked in there and people were playing Dungeons & Dragons and other games, but the very first day people were playing Magic and it looked interesting. I asked about it and was pretty much instantly hooked. I moved back to the United States in New Jersey during the summer of '95 and started going to game stores and playing in some local tournaments. I thought I was pretty good—like every brash seventeen-year-old does—but I probably didn't play enough lands.
Richard: Obviously Magic was super-successful, but it was still in this turbulent non-stabilized state. I very much believed in this idea that if you took a game seriously that would help all levels of the game. The example that was used was that of basketball. The existence of the NBA didn't make it so that everybody's games are all super serious and exclude people who didn't participate in the NBA.
The Birth of the Pro Tour
Skaff: I was in R&D and at some point they needed a Brand Manager for the product, so I became the Brand and Business Manager for Magic—not too long before the Pro Tour. Part of the brand and marketing plan we came up with was to turn Magic into an intellectual sport. We felt that was really important for the long-term health of Magic.
Richard: When Ice Age came out, there were early posts analyzing the set, and they said there were only two good cards in the set. This is an unbelievably bad result for someone who's been working on the set for years and years. You look at that you just think, "This is ridiculous," with putting all this time, and in the end there were two cards that are of interest to people because they wanted to play with all these old, powerful cards. If we were in the business of selling cards to people, we were going to run out of cards sooner than we wanted. But if we were in the business of selling environments, we could make a new environment whenever we want. That's basically where the game was before the Pro Tour came around.
Mark: Skaff and I worked really closely together trying to get the event off the ground. Remember, in the early days there was nothing to model after. It was like the Wild West. Every tournament was run radically different.
Skaff: Golf and tennis were the two key examples for us that we were following. We talked to a lot of people at various sports marketing agencies and we decided that the best course of action was to start holding high-dollar tournaments and create stars out of the top people by having significant payouts. I understand the first Pro Tour wasn't necessarily that, but it was the first step towards that.
Mark: We wanted to name the Pro Tour, and one of the first things we came up with was "The Black Lotus Pro Tour." We sent out postcards announcing it, and we later learned that the lotus had connotations in some foreign markets that were not good. It is symbolic of drug trafficking in Asia, for example. We were just calling it the Magic: The Gathering Pro Tour internally, and eventually that stuck.
Richard: The main thing was that there were a lot of design issues. As far as designing the way the tournament would work at the time—payouts, what would happen if people took too long playing, and so on—that was hard work, but it was minor compared to politically getting the company on board with it. Because if it [didn't] have the support of the company and a unified vision coming from them, then it wasn't going to work.
I remember a board meeting in those days with people talking about how to get in touch with what the players wanted. I suggested we could hire the players, and most of the people at the board meeting laughed. It just showed such a huge lack of respect for the people buying the product. All this political stuff had to be overcome. For me, this was the [most pressing] of the difficulties we faced.
The Phone Lines Are Open
Mark: We invited everybody that we could think of who were good players, including using rankings for the first time ever. We invited the top 25 or top 50 or whatever. Then we needed to fill out the rest of the tournament and we had no other means to do it. So the way you got into the first Pro Tour was by calling in.
Graham: I don't even think there were qualifiers for it. Whoever called first just got in. It filled up in a couple hours if I remember correctly. It was the same for the Juniors Division, but it just never filled up. Sam Beavers was actually the guy my parents called to ask, "Hey, if we fly our son out to New York, does he have a chance to win this thing?" He told them I definitely had a chance and they said, "Let's do it." After that first Pro Tour it was never like that again—you actually had to qualify for things, there was no sign-up sheet.
Skaff: We weren't really that connected to the players at the time, because everything was so casual. For the first Pro Tour, it was really difficult to jump-start everything. That was the hardest part. We basically had no contact information for the vast majority of good players. We knew we had limited slots and it was a call-in. We used as much information as we could, but in the end we had to have a call-in.
Elaine: It was first come, first serve, and at the time I had really well-trained fingers because that's how you got concert tickets—by calling into Ticketmaster. There was a lot of redialing on the phone when you got a busy signal. I would just hit redial...redial...redial. I actually got through, and my fiancé—now husband—also wanted to play. I asked if I could sign us both up and they said I had to hang up and dial again. Fortunately I got us both in. It was in New York City, I was in New York; there was no way I was gonna miss it. I was really excited to participate.
Mark: I remember I had friends, such as Mark Chalice, who desperately wanted to get in and they couldn't get through. They would call me and I just told them to keep trying, keep trying.
Michael: I remember all my friends trying to get in. I remember that I got through once and then the person on the other end hung up on me. And then it was busy...busy...busy. And then somehow—God bless—I got through on the phone lines. The rest is history I guess. Literally. It's amazing that that's how they did the first one.
A New Standard for Deck Construction
While it was still pretty common for tournaments to be held using what would now be considered Vintage as the default format, the format for that first Pro Tour was a modified version of Standard—or, as it was known at the time, Type 2. For this tournament, players build their decks including at least five cards from each set that was legal in the format: Fourth Edition, Chronicles, Ice Age, Fallen Empires, and Homelands.
Mark: The whole point of the Pro Tour is that it's a marketing vehicle. We want to be aspirational, but we were also trying to get them to focus on what the latest sets were going to be. Obviously right now Pro Tours are named after the new set that's just come out. Our problem was that the latest set to come out right before that first Pro Tour was Homelands....
Elaine: I can't even remember what all the sets were except that Homelands was one of them. It was the biggest pain ever. I mean, which Homelands cards were I going to force in? Do you actually build a deck with the Homelands cards in it, or do you just try and stick them in the sideboard? It was one of the things that made Autumn Willow stand out for that tournament. I built White Weenie and I put Aysen Highway in the sideboard. That was my big tech. If I played against another White Weenie player, I could drop it and swing for the kill. I guess I was trying to make "Plainswalkers" a thing before I even worked here.
Skaff: The idea at the time was that we wanted people to have to rethink deck construction. We wanted deck construction and what teams/individuals would be thinking about to be a little bit off the normal. It was pretty close to Type 2, so we wanted to promote Type 2 with this added skill twist to it.
Jon: I don't think Alliances was out yet, because as soon as I saw Thawing Glaciers I thought it was the best card ever and I definitely would've played that. I remember that Homelands and Fallen Empires were the really hard ones there. Fallen Empires had Hymn to Tourach, Order of the Ebon Hand, and Order of Leitbur. I ended up playing a blue-white Millstone deck, but I played Serra Angels, Blinking Spirits, and two Order of Leitburs. Homelands had Serrated Arrows and then the terrible tri-lands.
Charlie: We really wanted to encourage diversity and make sure that all sets were represented. We wanted the environment to be interesting and a little different. We wanted to make sure no sets felt bad to the players.
Michael: I remember trying to get Homelands cards in there—that was a hard one. Looking back now, I can see why people rip my deck. People don't know what it was like back then. They just know 60 cards, but back then it was different. I knew a kid who played 100-card decks competitively. Hallowed Ground was one of the cards I wasn't sold on; it was just in there because it needed to be.
Mark: Anyone who's ever heard me talk about this knows that [Homelands] is the weakest set—on every level—that we've ever made. It was not a particularly strong set-design-wise, was not a very powerful set development-wise. It was just a very kind of "eh" set. But that was the set that was out and we needed to focus on it. We wanted people to play with Homelands cards, but how do we make that happen other than maybe a Serrated Arrows here or there? We came up with a format that made you play with five cards from every set that was legal in Type 2.
In the early days of the Pro Tour, the field was broken up into two divisions: Seniors and Juniors. The Junior Division was held on an entirely different floor of the building that housed that first tournament. While the Seniors were cutting to a Top 16, the Juniors cut to a Top 8. Also all the prize money for Juniors was paid out in the form of college scholarships.
Skaff: I know this sounds almost quaint now, but at the time it was very controversial to put money on tournaments. You could put all sorts of other prizes, but you very rarely saw straight cash payouts. We wanted to not get on the bad side of parents, and it felt like that could happen if we put cash on the Juniors. So the prizes for the Juniors at the first Pro Tour weren't cash, they were scholarships. For the whole Junior tour they were managed as scholarships. There was a bit of marketing there, and we wanted the right emphasis for kids. We wanted to encourage kids to go to college.
Graham: I almost didn't go to college, because I already knew I wanted to work in the wine industry and I had a fair amount of experience. It was because I had that $12,000 scholarship—which essentially paid for all my tuition and books—that I was able to go to community college in Santa Barbara and then UCSB. It's pretty incredible that it worked out that way. It was really awesome.
Richard: Wow, that's cool!
Skaff: Honestly that makes me feel so good. That is exactly what we wanted to happen. We were all nerds growing up and we felt bad that people with hand-eye coordination and muscles could get scholarships. There are just not the amount of academic scholarships that there are for sports. We really wanted people to be able to take their hobby—which is essentially what you do with baseball or basketball—and have that equivalent for intellectual sports. We wanted more respect for intellectual pursuits.
Graham: It's not hard to see in general what the most powerful cards are. It's unusual that something totally out of the blue comes along, but I guess the deck I brought—Necropotence—was pretty out of the blue. The way that came about was there was this one guy—I don't know his name, we just called him Frenchy—and Joel Unger had this unbelievable respect for him as a deck builder. He was the first person messing around with Necropotence. I got the deck from Joel, who had just gotten it from Frenchy and was testing it at our local tournaments.
Michael: At the time, Necro decks were just not a thing around here. We weren't really prepared for that situation that much—thank God I ducked a couple of those. After the first tour, the Necro deck just busted out all over the place.
Jon: I just played a lot of Magic. There were a couple of stores I went to, especially Hero's Outpost in North Plainfield, which was the most local store. I went to Outer Realms in Linden, which was the store where the best people played. People like Eric Phillipps, David Bachman, Andy Longo, and Aaron Kline—who did well at that first Pro Tour—all went there.
Elaine: [My husband] Kierin was my playtesting partner, and for the most part it was just the two of us building a bunch of different decks and playing them against each other, just like we would for any of the Gray Matter events we went to. There wasn't this huge playtesting regimen like there is now; it was just "Hey there's a tournament with wonky deck restrictions, let's see what we can build."
Skaff: That first Pro Tour was insane. You don't want to just put an event on and then have no one hear about it. It was really supposed to drive excitement through the whole Magic community. You don't even do it to begin with unless you have that strategy in place so that you can leverage the value. Then if you are going to have press there, you want to make it look good. We had real budget constraints, but we wanted a good site. We wanted it to be in NY because that was the center of the Magic community. Without much money, we made it look really good. For a little random game company just coming it out, we made it look astounding. Maybe it is rose-colored glasses, but it was really impressive.
Jon: That first Pro Tour was very much a media event with very high production values. Now the Pro Tour is really designed to be viewed online, but then we had this huge gala event. That site was beautiful, although it couldn't hold very many people.
Skaff: When a player went there, we wanted them to feel like it was a respectable event. We wanted them to say "Hey! This is kind of cool. This is real." Because those players go out and tell their friends about it. That was the seed of the original Magic Pro Tour community. We wanted them to feel some confidence that we would be around.
Elaine: The funny thing about the first Pro Tour is that I didn't even think there would be a second one. They had done a big Ice Age Prerelease and the Homelands event in New York called "The Gathering 1," and there was no The Gathering 2. They were just all these different types of events that were doing all these different things. At the time, my take on it was that it was the new marketing flavor of the month and that they were going to keep trying things and move on and do something else.
Charlie: It's hard to put people in the mindset where we were back then. We had a lot of passion for Magic, we had a lot of great ideas for Magic, we just didn't have much experience. We were trying to learn from all these things that happened and trying to improve, but when you do something for the first time you're gonna try a lot of stuff that nowadays maybe you wouldn't do. The important thing is to learn from it. A lot of the early starts for the judge programs and forming tournament environments came from all the decisions that went into that tournament.
Skaff: Even things like registration don't sound hard, but if you don't think about it you are going to screw it up. The registration, how everything is calculated, scheduling the number of rounds and the tournament structure. We studied every tournament format known to man. Before, when it was casual, it really didn't matter—but now that there was money on it, people were going to game the system at every opportunity. We had to think about how we would manipulate this, how we would screw the system over so that we could win money by figuring out loopholes in the system. All of the tournaments that were run after that were completely different than they were before it.
Mark: When Magic first came out, Richard Garfield's vision for the game was one of discovery. Richard didn't want information put out, he wanted people to discover Magic cards in the wild. So for the first year or year and a half, people were super secretive about what was in a deck. I covered Worlds in 1995 and I wasn't allowed to list the decks. I did play-by-play, and I showed what was in their hands, but we didn't tell you their whole decks. At this tournament not only were we going to tell you, but we were going to print [commemorative copies of] the decks so you could buy them—you could play them. That was a very different approach from how we handled Magic in the past.
Richard: By the time we were doing the Pro Tour, I had completely given up on that idea already. I think it [lasted] a year maybe where it was a real part of the game, and I took immense satisfaction when lists would come out in magazines or online that were incomplete or incorrect because people had to do all the research on their own. My memory is, which again could be fuzzy, that after about a year it was clear that the idea of people discovering things in that way was impossible and they wanted to get the answer. I had given up on [my previous vision].
In the beginning, the way I imagined Magic being played was with people buying one deck, having some fun, and then maybe buying another deck. Then maybe mixing and matching them. I didn't anticipate people buying more than four or five decks. If everyone in your group only bought four to five, there was going to be this process of exploration. That play group of eight people wouldn't even see all the cards, they're not even gonna all be there. It was pretty clear, pretty early, that this is not how it was going to go down. And I embraced that reality.
Jon: It wasn't the way it is now where everybody knows everything all the time.
Skaff: We had these sports marketing people from the beginning telling us we were crazy if we didn't make it all single-elimination, but we were confident that we wanted Swiss for two reasons. One, it is more skill-testing. It gives people more play. You don't want to drive six hours in that snowstorm and lose in the first round. So we knew we wanted Swiss, but you have this strong pressure of wanting single-elimination. Single-elimination is very easy for people to understand. It is crystal clear and every game is exciting and nail-biting. We wanted a combo of those two...so we just did it. We are sort of proud of that format. It has become the standard for Magic stuff, but you see it in other places too now.
A Snow-Covered Island
Perhaps running a tent-pole marketing event in the middle of the winter in New York City was not the best idea.
Mark: Skaff had it in his mind that it had to be in New York City. He also really wanted the Pro Tour to start in February, but he never seemed to piece together that it snows in February in New York City.
Jon: It was the blizzard of '96—how could you forget the blizzard of '96? I probably drove in—at the time I lived really close to the Holland Tunnel. My car was this old Mitsubishi Mirage hatchback that was definitely not optimized for winter driving. I'd drive the car to PTQs and $1,000 tournaments all over the place, and there must have been a 20% chance that I got into an accident, but somehow I always came out on the right side of it. I min-crashed with it.
Elaine: There had already been two huge blizzards, including the blizzard that dumped two feet of snow in New York. Then the Pro Tour happens and there's this third blizzard with another ten-plus inches. We nearly didn't make it to the city, our car was slipping and sliding all over the place. Once we got there, all of Manhattan was closed. Try to picture Manhattan with no cars, with nobody going anywhere; it was the most insane thing ever.
Richard: I used to attend the MIT puzzle hunt, and it was always held on Martin Luther King Jr. Day—or as we who did the hunt used to call it, the coldest day of the year. This idea of having a large group of people get together in terrible weather and play games indoors was something I had lived through several times, and I thought maybe in some ways that was how it ought to be.
Michael: Oh my God, the weather! I remember being scared, I can tell you that. Jim Allen and I, we rented a van or something; he was driving and I was up front with him. Everyone else was either sleeping or passed out and I remember try to get one of my other friends to stay awake. I said, "I don't want to die."
Graham: I am from Southern California and New York was covered in snow. I had never been to New York City. I was just so wowed by the city, seeing everything so tall and covered in snow. I was just going with the flow, you know? I don't remember anything out of the ordinary other than it being very cold.
Charlie: The reason I remember that is because I didn't bring a winter coat. I wasn't thinking along those lines. I remember walking back one of those nights from the tournament site to the hotel with Skaff Elias, who also didn't bring a winter coat, and never wearing anything other than shorts. The snow is coming down like crazy and we were there without jackets, wearing tennis shoes.
Skaff: And I was out there on the roof of the Puck Building in my shorts, trying to fix stuff, with baling wire trying to hang signs and banners. It was obviously a disaster. We had talked about it before and asked "What if this happens?" but we were pretty adamant that it had to be in NY for a number of reasons. Number one was that it was a lot easier for international travel, and we wanted to make sure we had people from other countries there. The Magic community there was so strong and so many people could drive to it. It was by far the best city for the first Pro Tour.
Michael: Jim Allen was driving crazy. It was like a bat out of hell. It looked like the Millennium Falcon with the lights in the snow going by the windshield, and I was legit scared we were going to go off the road or something. My friend Jim would just maniacally laugh. I couldn't tell if he was really insane or just teasing me. To this day I don't know.
Mark: I grew up in the Snow Belt, where you really needed a foot and a half of snow for a real shot at a snow day. When I shot the video, I tried to do an introduction outside the building. It was so windy, with so much snow, that we did eight takes on it before we gave up. It was so snowy that we delayed the start of Day One. It was supposed to start at like 9 or 10 a.m. and we delayed until the afternoon.
Skaff: You never know...once your boss gives you approval to do stuff, you gotta do it because the rug could be yanked out from under you at the next turn. We didn't really have options. We knew that the weather could be a factor and we kept altering things—how late registration was, when the rounds would start. We did everything we could to bend things to accommodate people. It was nerve-wracking but—and maybe it was false optimism—I never thought things would be ruined. I am from the Northeast. I have driven stupidly in snowstorms a lot, so I thought, "Get there, suck it up, put some scrapes on the side of your car. That's what guard rails are for."
In the Eye of the Storm
Elaine: There was this party the night before for the people who were able to make it. There were people passing around pseudo-fancy appetizers, but everyone was starving because nobody could get anything to eat. They actually ordered a bunch of pizzas for us, which was really awesome. The pizzas would come out and people would just devour them.
Michael: The first night we got there...we were partying pretty hard. I'll never forget this, though: Richard Garfield, who at the time was kind of a big deal, was there and I had never met him. We were all practicing in the hallways of the hotel and I'd had a few too many drinks. I went up to him and I said, "Hey Richard! I'm Michael Loconto and I'm gonna see you Sunday when I win this thing!"
And then after it was all said and done and I'm standing there with him, he was shaking his head saying, "I can't believe you actually won." We used to have a really good time when we played.
Mark: We wanted to make sure that it was a spectacle. The night before, there was a party where we had food and drinks for the players. We even had to make sure all the players actually came; I had to get on the phone with the players and make sure they knew that this was going to be a big deal for Magic.
Elaine: Later that night, we went back to the hotel and we were watching Letterman. It was hilarious because nobody could get in or out of the city and Letterman taped in front of a live audience. He has the camera guy turn around to show the audience and there were like five people in the audience for Letterman. Then they went to check out the standby line and there were like twelve people on the standby line. He lets them all in and they don't even fill up the first row. Kierin and I just looked at each other and said "Holy crap! We should've gone to Letterman!"
Pairings Are Up
Graham: There were a lot of little kids there. It felt like maybe there were fifteen of us that were actually competing in the tournament. It was just unfair that a twelve-year-old had to play a seventeen-year-old, you know? The fact that I had a Necropotence deck and I was given that playing field? My entire match would be done in ten or twelve minutes.
I do remember judges laughing when I played Demonic Consultation for the first time. I was like "Okay, laugh all you want." They certainly weren't laughing at the end. I remember an incredible number of fast matches. I remember losing to this guy who played Karma [in his main deck]. That was my only loss. I had to have a judge question if that was seriously in his [main] deck and the judge said it was.
Charlie: Not only was I the head judge for the Juniors, I was also the tournament organizer. I had note cards and I had pencils with erasers. I knew ahead of time how to do pairings — I played chess tournaments and I knew how a tournament should be run. I just got the note cards out, put all the 1-0s in a pile, put all the 0-1s in a pile, and paired them for Round 2. I kept track of all the results on the notecards. I took the pile of notecards back to my hotel room after dinner and spent quite a bit of time calculating—by hand—all the players' tiebreakers. I used that to determine the order that everybody finished in. Obviously I had to double-check that because it was an important thing. Not only did I calculate the tiebreakers, but I double-checked all my math. I had to calculate this for all 120-something competitors.
Elaine: I do remember that there was a big delay at the beginning of Round 1 because they were scouring the room and looking under tables and things to make sure there weren't any cheating implements. You could only go into the room with your deck and tournament materials—you couldn't bring anything else in with you. They had an enforced coat and backpack check that they didn't tell anybody they were going to have, and they were charging people money for it. At the time, we were poor Magic players and nobody wanted to pay the couple bucks to have them check our stuff. We complained loudly enough until they said we didn't have to pay...although I'm not sure if they just made that a special case for us or if they did it for everybody.
Skaff: Once the tournament started, I don't remember very much. I had been called up to the Juniors several times. Finkel was crying, and I had to take care of that.
Jon: Ten minutes after I won my first round, there were three cards sitting on our table. I had been Jester's Capped in Game 2 and our match went to three games. The judge asked me if they were my cards. I said they were, and I got a game loss for Game 3. I had won the match—those cards could've been there for any number of reasons. I threw what could charitably be called a tantrum. It definitely involved crying—I'm glad there was no video. That's actually how I met Skaff, I was demanding my money back and stuff. They calmed me down, but I still think that game loss was kinda [unfair].
Charlie: I remember being a little worried about making the rules call, but fortunately I was given Beth Moursand, who was really good at the rules. That helped a little bit for my concerns. I don't remember there being anything that extreme though.
Mark: There are so many things about how a Pro Tour is run that you take for granted now. For example, I'm the creator of Feature Matches—and that didn't even happen until the second Pro Tour. And there it was me putting up a list of tables with matches you might want to go see. It wasn't until the third Pro Tour that we created a special area where you could go as a spectator. For the first Pro Tour, spectators could just walk around and watch any match they wanted.
Elaine: I did horribly and lost very quickly. As soon as both Kierin and I were out of Top 16 contention, we went to get lunch. We went up to Brian David-Marshall and he told us to stay, because even if we weren't gonna make the cut, there were still going to be invites given out—I don't remember if it was Top 32 or Top 64—to the next tour in LA. And I remember saying specifically "Yeah right! Like they're going to do another one of these! Do you want us to bring you back anything?" So we dropped and of course I spent the next two years of my life trying to get back on the Pro Tour.
Jon: I won my next five rounds and then I was playing against Ross Sclafani; the winner was going to be in the Top 8. The tiebreaker was game win percentage and I suggested to Ross that we should say whoever wins won the match 2-0. He called the judge and the judge said we couldn't do that. Now, of course, you know that now—but then? You had no idea. I ended up losing, but I made the Top 8 anyway and lost in the quarters.
After a day of Swiss play and a laborious evening of tiebreaker calculations, the Top 16 for the Seniors and the Top 8 for the Juniors came back to play on Sunday. Bertrand Lestree and Michael Loconto were the last two Seniors playing at the end of their bracket, while Graham Tatomer faced off against Aaron Kline.
Graham: I played the final match against a White Weenie deck played by Aaron Kline. That was a really tough match, and I topdecked a couple times to save my [bacon]. I remember topdecking a Nevinyrral's Disk to win. That was gnarly.
They told us to play slow and explain everything. I was always a very fast Magic player. I felt like if I played too slow I might lose my natural instinct for the game. I remember at one point they announced that Aaron had won the match. We didn't really communicate when it happened. I was gonna kill him the next turn, but he had Karma out. I had a Zuran Orb and could sacrifice my lands to gain life. I looked at him and he said "Yeah I get it." I just swept up all my cards and so did he. They just thought he had won. I would have died to Karma if I didn't sacrifice any lands, but I could just sacrifice all my lands—it didn't matter—[and] I was about to kill him.
At any Pro Tour after that, you would've had to be very specific about what you were doing—about every step. Aaron was nice enough to say "Yes, you're totally not gonna die to Karma while you have the Zuran Orb out." I think about that moment a lot. I should've been more professional, but I was a kid. It was just this minute of confusion where all the people thought that he won. He would've won the tournament with that game, but we went the full five games.
Michael: My deck used Millstones to run people out of cards. It was mainly defensive with lots of board wipes: Wrath of God, Swords to Plowshares (thank God for Swords), and Balance. You had Blinking Spirits and Mishra's Factories to block all their stuff. I was just trying to make the games last as long as I could and hopefully run [my opponents] out of cards.
I remember at the end it was gonna be a best-of-seven match for the finals and the deck just took way too long. I don't think they ever expected that kind of thing. They brought me and Bertrand in after—I think I lost the first game and won the second game—and said it was super late and they didn't rent the venue for long enough. They needed to have a winner. They said we could just split the money and play one game for the title. That's how it went.
Graham: Oh my God! Is that what happened—they went from best-of-seven to best-of-three? Ours was nothing like that, we finished all five games! They even made a comment about it in the video. "These Juniors don't hold back, they're playing really fast." I think Aaron also had a tendency to be a really fast player. I think he was a regular White Weenie player and that's not like playing a control deck. I think that was the slowest that both Aaron and I each played those decks, but you could only go so slow with those. It's time to play Hypnotic Specter and get things done.
Charlie: I remember finishing our tournament and coming down and being asked to sub in for one of the judges because they needed a break—the final was just going so long. The other thing that I remember is a friend of mine and some other judges going to grab dinner. They went to a place kind of far away, someplace they had to wait a while. When they eventually came back, they had no idea that the match would still be going.
Mark: They both understood that this was the first Pro Tour and they both wanted to be the guy that won it. On top of that—people don't remember this—but Bertrand Lestree played in the World Championship and lost to Zak Dolan in the finals. On paper Bertrand was supposed to win that match, but Zak won that one. He did not want to become the guy who also lost in the finals of the first-ever Pro Tour. He was going to take his time. They were playing slow, slow decks to start with, and they just didn't want to make any mistakes. Originally we were gonna play best-of-seven, but then after five hours we decided it was gonna be best-of-three.
Michael: It was the final game and he had a Whirling Dervish that was just wrecking me. I'm not sure, but I think I made a mistake—maybe something with my Mishra—I had to topdeck a Swords to Plowshares and I had already used a few in that game. [Man], did I get lucky. I was holding one Plains in my hand—I had no lands. I just held that one Plains and laughed. I had to draw that Swords right there. He probably lost his mind after that.
We ended up becoming really good friends after that; he was a real character. He was like Shawn "Hammer" Regnier. He would always dig and say stuff and try to get inside your head, but after I won we really hit it off. We would always hang out after a Pro Tour. I remember asking him for his autograph. He wrote, "[Expletive deleted] Swords!" and then he signed it "Bertrand." I still have that. That, I'll never get rid of.
Summer Is Coming
Before that Pro Tour, the card Necropotence was not regarded as a tournament-viable card by the vast majority of the tournament goers.
Mark: Necropotence got a one-star rating in Inquest magazine. What was interesting about the tournament was Graham Tatomer obviously wins with the Necro deck and Leon Lindbeck makes the Top 8 with it—a really early version of the deck. It wasn't until that summer that that deck really took off.
Richard: I don't remember if we knew exactly how powerful that card was, but I knew it didn't surprise me. My design philosophy in those days was that if you didn't make a few banned cards, you weren't being aggressive enough. You had to be taking chances. My philosophy was give the players lots of interesting tools and let them play with those tools. My philosophy of discovery regarding the cards had gone by the wayside, but the discovery of combinations was very much a part of the game. Players are constantly finding new ways to combine cards in the game that we didn't anticipate.
Michael: I definitely dodged a few bullets that day in the pairings.
Graham: You were so powerful with that deck and you could really demoralize your opponent. I tried to use psychology as far as putting pressure on the opponent, and that deck really worked out for that—it forces people to makes mistakes or give up too early.
Richard: The experience of going to events, where people were excited to meet me, have me sign cards, and play with me, was not new. I'd been doing that for a few years—but the tenor here was changing, because this was the first time that I felt like the players were starting to become really good and were taking the game really seriously. On the surface this was very much like all those previous meetings, but I felt like something had changed. Before the Pro Tour I could go in any card shop and beat most of the players with an all-commons deck. It was ridiculous. Then the Pro Tour came around and I couldn't walk into a card shop and beat everybody with an all-commons deck anymore.
Graham: It was incredible, obviously. My dad was with me and he was just thrilled. He's kind of a nerd himself. He would rather be the smartest one instead of the strongest one. For his son to win was kind of a big deal. Joel Unger was there, and it was great to have him there. It was incredible. They were also happy for me. When I got back to Santa Barbara, most of the people hadn't even heard yet. We weren't all that connected yet with texting and the internet. But everyone was thrilled when they found out that I won. It was pretty positive.
Skaff: The Pro Tour is probably the thing I am most proud of out of everything I have ever worked on. It is such a standard part of the game. I don't think people understand how important it is to the success of the game, because they have never lived in a world without it.
Mark: What the first Pro Tour really did was establish standards of how to run a tournament. The funny thing is that first tournament...we got a lot wrong. We learned a lot along the way, but it was a giant leap from what came before.
Jon: I think that if you look at the first Pro Tour and you hold up the Juniors against the Seniors and look at lifetime Pro Points, it has to be a blowout for the Juniors—an absolute blowout. Darwin was probably the best player who played in the Seniors. The Juniors had me, Steve O'Mahoney-Schwartz, Bob Maher, and Brian Kibler.
Elaine: For me, the Black Lotus Pro Tour really was a turning point in terms of the scale and scope that Magic had in the gaming universe—and in my universe.
Charlie: Twenty years ago, we were just formulating all of this: what a tournament should be like, what formats should be like, what's fun about Magic—all that kind of stuff. I definitely felt like we accomplished a lot. We learned so much from that very first event, it gave us so much to think about how we could make the next event better.
Michael: Years and years later, somebody came up to me and told me I was in a magazine again. They showed me and I was like "Wow." I showed my mom and she ended up calling out to Wizards asking them if they still had the cover painting [of me and Bertrand]. Wizards was super cool and they put it in a frame and sent it out to her. It is hanging next to the uncut sheet of my deck.
Mark: There are also some stories I could tell you that probably shouldn't be printed, so if you want to shut that recorder off—