What I Love About Magic: The History

Posted in Ways to Play on February 20, 2017

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.

I have been in love with the game of Magic for a very long time. Even before I had seen a card, the idea of it fascinated me and I could not wait to get my hands on the next shipment of Unlimited cards that The Compleat Strategist (my local store) assured me would come in "any day now." Once I started playing, I never stopped. I don't think I have gone more than two weeks without playing Magic in some shape or form since those first kitchen-tabletop battles with my board-gaming friends.

What has kept Magic fresh and interesting to me is the living history of the game. I do a lot of different things in Magic, from writing for this website to providing play-by-play commentary at Grand Prix to doing floor interviews and desk segments at the Pro Tour, but the role that I treasure the most is being the Pro Tour Historian. In that role, I help to curate the Magic: The Gathering Pro Tour Hall of Fame and have had the chance to preside over the Hall of Fame inductions of players ranging from Jon Finkel in 2005 to his current teammate Owen Turtenwald eleven years later in 2016.

Turtenwald had not even made a blip on the Pro Tour scene when Finkel was already being honored for his dizzying accomplishments in the game. Now they playtest for Pro Tours together as members of The Pantheon and—as members of Team Puzzle Quest—have the chance to be a part of the unfolding history of the game when the inaugural Pro Tour Team Series finals are played at the Magic World Championship later this year. Of course, they have a little bit of ground to cover if they are going to catch the frontrunners, and following that race as it plays out for the first time is going to be another piece in the jigsaw puzzle of what I love about playing and watching this game.

I had the opportunity to be part of the coverage team this past weekend at Grand Prix Pittsburgh, and I found myself surrounded by memories that traced back into the early days of the Pro Tour. Were this any other competitive field, those memories might very well have been associated with long-retired players. But Magic has a way of accompanying us throughout the various stages of our life. Three players at the Grand Prix in particular stood out to me for their involvement in some of the game's most memorable moments.

Pro Tour Hall of Famer Ben Rubin finished in the Top 16 of the Grand Prix and was playing at the top of the standings throughout the event—a position that he has been familiar with since he first burst onto the scene as a finalist at Pro Tour Los Angeles 1998 as a fifteen-year-old. At that point in the game, there were two divisions on the Pro Tour, with younger players competing in the Junior Pro Tour. We know now that the future Hall of Famers who competed at that level—Jon Finkel, Brian Kibler, Steve O'Mahoney-Schwartz, Zvi Mowshowitz, and Bob Maher, to name a few—were more than up to competing with anyone who has ever sleeved up a deck.

Fellow Hall of Famer Olle Råde had previously made the finals—and won a Pro Tour—as a seventeen-year-old, and with Ben Rubin's success at an even younger age, we had to recalibrate our perceptions of the competitive scene. The top tables of Magic tournaments had been the province of college-age players. Ben Rubin's opponent in that finals was Pro Tour LA–winner David Price, who came up with Team Deadguy at Cornell University. With Råde and Rubin, a new generation of players were inspired to level the playing field against older competition. Rubin would go on to make the finals of the World Championship later that season and cement his place in the game as one of the most feared opponents you could find yourself paired against.

And that remains true today. Rubin finished 11th at Grand Prix Pittsburgh, is coming off a 19th-place finish at Pro Tour Aether Revolt, and had two Grand Prix Top 8 finishes last season. Barely at the midpoint of his thirties, I expect that there are still plenty of chapters to be written in his Magic history.

Another player coming off a strong finish at Pro Tour Aether Revolt and doing well in Pittsburgh was Brad Nelson. He made the Top 16 of the Pro Tour; put Gonti, Lord of Luxury into everyone's Standard playtesting gauntlets with his take on the Black-Green Constrictor deck; and followed up with another Top 16 using the deck this past weekend.

Nelson playing in Day One of the Grand Prix also marked the sixth anniversary of his participation in an unprecedented event in Magic's history. Since the first moment I became involved in Magic coverage, I had rooted for the possibility of a tie in the Player of the Year race to end the season. It had long been written into the tournament rules that any such ties would be settled with a playoff at the Pro Tour to start the following season. The possibility existed in 2004, when future Hall of Famers Gabriel Nassif, Nicolai Herzog, and Rickard Österberg were all neck and neck and neck heading into the World Championship in San Francisco, but it was not to be. (Julien Nuijten won the tournament, and at fifteen years old became the youngest player ever to become Magic World Champion.)

A year later, there was another tight race as a trio of future Hall of Famers—Kenji Tsumura, Olivier Ruel, and Masashi Oiso—were all in contention for the Player of the Year title heading into Worlds 2005, but Kenji pulled away en route to becoming the first Japanese player to ever hold that title. (He's now very far from the last to do so.)

It was not until Guillaume Matignon won the 2010 World Championship that I got my wish. He closed what had seemed like an insurmountable gap to finish the season tied with Nelson for a playoff in Paris in one of the most jam-packed weekends of Magic anyone there had ever seen. There was a Grand Prix and a Pro Tour that weekend, and we even had a player (Paul Rietzl) competing in the Grand Prix while also playing in the Top 8 of the Pro Tour. It was the debut of one of the most dominant decks in the history of Standard, and the weekend cemented Team ChannelFireball as the most dominant team in the game.

All of that was the undercard in my mind. We came into the new season without a clear winner of the Player of the Year title, and there was going to be a best-of-seven playoff across two formats: Standard and Super Sealed. In the end, it was Brad Nelson who won the 2010 Player of the Year title—even if he had to wait until 2011 to do so. In a funny side note, Nelson was almost late to that playoff match. He was walking to the site from the hotel with his little brother, Corey Baumeister, and a Pro Tour Historian whose name we may never know when we they got lost and could not figure out how to flag a taxi.

Brad Nelson, Player of the Year
Brad Nelson was congratulated after his Player of the Year win by his father, Jess Nelson (left), and his brother, Corey Baumeister (right).

As good as Brad Nelson was at that early stage of his career, six years later he is playing the best and most consistent Magic of his career. I have thrown around the prefix "Hall of Famer" quite a bit in this column, and you may be wondering about why you have not seen it appear before Nelson's name. Players do not become eligible until they are ten years removed from their Pro Tour debut, and Nelson will not appear on the ballot until 2019. In the meantime, he is focused on playing great Magic, hitting Platinum again this season, and getting his little brother to Gold status so they can spend an entire season playing on the Pro Tour together. That is the history that Nelson is hoping to write in the coming months.

The history of the game is always being written, and that potential for new entries in the game's record books really is what I love about the game (that and drafting, of course). I can't wait to see the career that unfurls in front of Pro Tour Rookie of the Year and Constructed Master Oliver Tiu as he plays out his sophomore season on the Pro Tour against the backdrop of his freshman year of college. Will Grand Prix Pittsburgh–finalist Bronson Gervasi, now qualified to compete in the first Pro Tour of his career, become a name familiar to Magic fans around the world? There is only way to find out.

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