Getting to Know Gavin Verhey

Posted in The Week That Was on July 18, 2008

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, 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.

Gavin Verhey, better known as Lesurgo on countless Magic forums, is an 18-year old, soon-to-be college junior at Washington State. While his long-term Magic goal is to get a job in Magic R&D, he has been toiling in the PTQ ranks for the past couple of years hoping to see if he has what it takes to play in the game's toughest arena.

Just two weeks ago he earned the opportunity—and the airfare—to play in Berlin. It would be reasonable for Gavin to expect to have some success when he gets there as he has done well at every level of competition he has played at.

Gavin Verhey

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Sorcery (4)
4 Thoughtseize
Instant (4)
4 Cryptic Command
Enchantment (4)
4 Bitterblossom
Tribal instant (6)
4 Nameless Inversion 2 Peppersmoke
60 Cards

After back-to-back Top 16 finishes in 2005 and 2006 on the JSS he closed out his experience on the junior circuit with a Top 32 in 2007, which eased his parents' tuition burden by some $8,000. Twice he has made the Top 8 of his Regionals, with one trip to Nationals, he finished second in his City Champs, and has made the Top 8 of twelve PTQs. That dozen includes one other win, which was for Yokohama, but when Gavin registers for Pro Tour–Berlin it will be his first taste of major league pitching.

PTQ-Berlin winner Gavin Verhey.In fact, when he sits down for that round one in Berlin it will be the culmination of more than eight years of living and breathing Magic since he first encountered it at a Wizards of the Coast store. Gavin was attending a different gaming tournament at the time when a store employee suggested he give Magic a try—and suddenly Gavin had a new game.

"I remember just a couple days later when my brother and I were playing, and I was telling my dad about how you could win money at the game and that someday I was going to do that," recalled Gavin of his first experiences with the game. "He gave me a rather parental 'oh,' a chuckle, and eyebrow-raise as he walked out of the room, no doubt rolling his eyes. Who knew I actually would?"

His parents had some qualms about Gavin getting into this new—and somewhat older, darker-skewing game and he suspects that it was the fact that the store employee was female which led his mother to let him try the game out by purchasing a Sixth Edition starter for him and his brother.

"Time has shown my parents to be some of my largest supporters of me playing Magic and following my dreams, and I couldn't have gotten this far without them," Gavin said.

Gavin moved from Sixth Edition duels with this brother to FNM drafts and Prerelease Sealed Deck tournaments but had no competitive aspirations until a fateful encounter at the Odyssey Prerelease changed his perspective on playing the game forever.

"I was really into designing Magic cards, printing them, and drafting them with my friends. I had, and still have, a dream of working in Magic R&D," explained Gavin. "Randy Buehler was gunslinging so I walked up and asked him a couple of questions all just leading up to the big one I wanted to ask about a job at Wizards and what it took to become a member of R&D. He told me that a college degree was required, and that the best way to get noticed for the position was to be a successful Magic pro player. A pro, eh? Sure, I could do that. How hard could it possibly be? This is important because it's the thing that got me interested in tournaments outside of FNM's and Prereleases."

The precious 'blue' envelope.Gavin began to toil away in the JSS ranks without much success but his brother Tanner won a small qualifier and the family took a road trip to U.S. Nationals and the JSS Championship in 2003. While Tanner did not finish well in the tournament, Gavin's attendance at that event is a seminal moment in his personal Magic history.

"It made my parents and me realize how big of a deal Magic really was," Gavin explained of his first look at a large-scale Magic event. "It wasn't just a game thrown around in tables at local comic shops or something that attracted a couple hundred people for a Prerelease every four months. It was a serious, mentally challenging, worldwide phenomenon with high stakes. I remember looking around as I entered the hall and having my jaw actually drop. As soon as I got home, I started to take Magic much more seriously and wanted to work hard to become better."

Gavin began to pursue Magic with a ravenous hunger for articles, decklists, coverage, and forum posts but nothing was quelling his need to improve and he quickly felt as though he was outgrowing the publicly available information about the game. He needed more than just information... he realized, after reading the coverage for Pro Tour–Philadelphia, that he needed a support network if he was going to reach the next level.

"I was paying attention to the Pro Tour–Philadelphia coverage and noticed how prevalent teams were," said Gavin, who would attempt to follow in the footsteps of the most successful players at that time. "Gadiel Szleifer, the winner of the Pro Tour, worked with a team called Taking Back Sunday, and the Japanese worked in teams on their own. I had also heard of French teams in the event. They were using their teams to bounce ideas off of each other and to create new decks, and then doing very well on the Pro Tour. If all of these players could be part of a team, why couldn't I?"

Szleifer's win inspired Verhey.It was at that point that Gavin resolved to form a team of up-and-coming players like himself to change his strategic intake on the game. He formed Team Unknown Stars.

"I went to the two people I had mainly been corresponding with online at the time, Nick Ernst and Travis Williams, and pitched the idea to them," said Gavin of the team's origins. "They were hesitant at first, but eventually they came around and I started the team up using the only good venue I knew of for networking at the time—message boards. I set them up, created an application process, and then we sent out some invitations and advertised heavily in public online venues and to people that I knew in real life. People came steadily, and the team began."

"The key to the team's original success was actually a Magic player named Ari Lax. The Midwest scene houses many of the best Magic players. I had played against Ari at the JSS Championships and then tracked his name down afterwards. When I saw his name online, I invited him to the team on a whim. Ari told other people in his area, which led to Paul Nicolo, one of the most influential and important people in my Magic career, joining the team, who in turn told others."

From there the team snowballed for Gavin and additional up-and-coming players joined the team including Josh Wludyka, DJ Kastner, Kyle Boggemes, and Phil Cape.

"During that time word had spread, we racked up results, many more applied, and now Team Unknown Stars features 67 members from six different countries, and I'm proud to say that each and every one of them contributes something that I couldn't find elsewhere to the group," said Gavin proudly. "Soon after I founded the team, I acquired my first PTQ Top 8 with a ridiculous and innovative Iname, Death Aspect deck at a block PTQ in Seattle. Then I ended up Top 8ing four Ravnica Limited PTQs and Qualifying for Nationals the very next year."

Gavin Verhey

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Gavin was not merely content to play Magic and has completely inhabited it over his young career which includes being a popular podcast host for MTGCast, an unofficial Magic podcast that attracts thousands of listeners.

"For me, Magic itself is not just the main product; it's everything that surrounds it. The people, the lifestyle, the communities. I've always really enjoyed being a part of that because it's like having thousands of friends from all around the world who have a common interest and speak the same language: Magic-ese," said Gavin of why he does not just focus on playing the game, and became involved in podcasting. "As soon as I heard about podcasts I became entranced with them. It was no longer just the dry text of an article, but actual interviews and opinions with voices that I could take with me anywhere. I have a ridiculous memory for things that I hear, and as opposed to articles, I can still recall segments from podcasts that are over two years old verbatim. This vast wealth of audio information really improved my game. I was first started on the now-defunct Mana Vault, then's cast, and then the Top8Magic podcasts. I really wanted to do one of my own."

"When the opportunity came to be a part of (MTGCast), I pounced and never let go," said Gavin. "Using some of my ideas, along with my contacts and channels of free Magic advertising, my co-hosts and I have grown the MTGCast network into one of the most popular unofficial Magic podcasts on the Internet. I think that the key to my success has been to make contacts with the right people by never refusing an opportunity to get to know somebody, even if I initially dislike them, and also by always trying to be a part of every network and group I can. Any opportunity to work with somebody else not taken is a declined chance to get future information."

So how did Gavin employ his network and contacts to create an opportunity to play on the Pro Tour?

"I also always try to learn how a deck operates if its Plan A fails, because the average PTQ player can only operate their best plan at maximum capacity. In the Faeries mirror, I encountered several players who didn't get to cast their Bitterblossom turn two and then were completely mistaken on what cards mattered or how they should be using their spells," he explained. "The main thing I did different for this event is that I chose to play the best deck. Normally I wouldn't, because it's hard to fight through hate round after round. However, unlike in Standard where there is good hate for Faeries and—more importantly—there are good and quick red and green decks to take advantage of Faeries' weaknesses, the same is not true in Block. As a result Faeries just dominates everything."

"I played in five PTQs this season, played decks that tried to beat Faeries while beating other decks and couldn't make the Top 8, and then immediately made Top 8 the two that I played Faeries."

He did more than merely Top 8 this last one. Gavin qualified for the Pro Tour and essentially disqualified himself for the remainder of the PTQ season—two things that will take some getting used to.

"Playing on the Pro Tour has been something I've wanted to do for a very long time, and finally being able to do it is amazing. To me, it will finally mean that I'm entering the next step of my Magic career. Now I finally get to play at the highest level you can go," he said but admitted that he is not sure what to do with his suddenly free weekend schedule. "It's so weird for me because, with the exception of times that I've been on vacation, I've attended almost every PTQ in the Northwest in the past couple of years with the willpower and determination of a giant. On August 2nd, I'm not going to have to."

So how would Gavin start his preparation for the Pro Tour?

"I'm definitely going to work with everybody I typically network with: Team Unknown Stars, and affiliates like Owen Turtenwald and Adam Yurchick," he said. "I'm also going to work with people from the Northwest that are qualified. Mike Gurney has had the fire since he got back into the game and qualified for Berlin through Pro Tour–Hollywood, so I'll definitely be working with him. I'm hoping that he can improve my play in addition to being a fantastic testing partner. We still have to wait on Eventide and Shards of Alara, but I already have some pretty exciting ideas for new Extended cooked up."

It is always tough when a player makes a jump up from one level of play to the next and I was curious as to how Gavin was tempering his expectations for this tournament. Just like he did at the start of his Magic career, he took the advice of a winner.

Jan-Moritz Merkel also serves to inspire."I think that Jan-Moritz Merkel said it best when he won Kobe," said the Pro Tour-bound Gavin. "To paraphrase, he said that he didn't set any goals. He didn't set a goal of Day 2, or Top 32, or Top 16 because he didn't want to feel like he only had to reach a goal or be put under the pressure of 'have to win this match to do X.' He just wanted to play each match the best as he could, see where it took him, and go from there. And that's how I feel. I'm just going to play each match to the best of my ability, try to win, and then see what happens. If you pick a good deck, don't make any misplays or bad mulligans and still lose, there's not much more you can do."

"That said, I would like to win a Pro Tour."

Extra with Gavin Verhey: Building Your Own Network or Team

I asked Gavin to provide some more detail on how players can enhance their game by joining a team or forming their own network of players from which to draw strength and strategy. His detailed essay is included below:

If you want to be part of a network, you have two options: you can either form your own, or join an existing one. If you want to do the former on a larger scale so that you can network with people other than who you see at PTQs, first you need to figure out how you're going to network. It's no use trying to converse amongst other Magic players if it's going to be hard to do. I love forums because they archive all of the information and present it in a chronological and searchable format that allows for new topics to be started easily. I've seen people try to run a network through e-mail before, and it's a hassle remembering what they're responding to and finding old information. Do whatever seems best for what you are trying to accomplish, but something like forums or Google Groups works best. Then, you need to figure out how you're going to get people to your network. In this day and age, it's important to remember that everybody who's been playing for a while knows someone. First, invite people to your network that you think would be worthwhile to network with. Then, tell them to let other players that they think are good players know about the network. Word spreads quickly.

After you invite the people that you know, take it global. The Internet is an amazing tool, and with how global the Magic communities amongst forums and existing communities are, it's easy to put your network in front of the eyes of a hundred people in just a few minutes. Make sure to look professional and present your network, like this is something that people will want to be a part of. You need to be relentless and dedicated. You can't just put your message on one site, walk away, and expect to be a success. It takes effort. You need to keep telling people you know, present it on multiple forums and communities, and seek out people who you think will benefit you. I remember when I started; I browsed forums and looked through peoples' posts to see who seemed to have a handle on what they were doing. When I saw somebody who I thought would contribute to discussion, I invited them.

With all of that in mind, there is something very important to successfully build a long-lasting network. The key to all of this is to not be picky. A lot of people don't want to work with people they haven't met face to face, or have ratings below 1900, or have never been to a Pro Tour. Now that I have an established network I can be more selective, but to build a network, you have to start in the building phase. You're not going to have a surge of people to join your network who play at every Pro Tour. When I started my team, I accepted and invited anyone who had proven that they could play Magic at a level above the basics that I thought would contribute to the conversation. Remember what I said earlier: everyone knows someone. People will tell people that they know, who will tell people that they know, and so on. Some of the people that they tell are bound to be better, who will in turn know better players. You build it from the bottom up. If you're looking for immediate results, you're better off looking for an existing network of players. But, if you want something long-term that will yield exactly what you want over time, build your own network.

Building a network is a lot like playing a complicated Mind's Desire combo deck...You're never sure exactly how you're going to get there, you have to think a lot and take a couple of risks to put the pieces together, but everything eventually falls into place and, whether you go off a roundabout way and kill them for exactly lethal or end up getting a lucky break and Brain Freeze them for their deck twice over, you reach your goal of victory. And, just like a combo deck, you always want to take the route that seems like it's the best choice at the time even if you know that there's a possibility that you might fizzle.

Once you have a network of players, you want to promote discussion. Make sure that you can keep things on topic and professional. You don't need to put strict moderation policies in place, but don't just let anything go either. There was a point about a year and a half ago when the team was really suffering because you had to wade through trash to find anything worthwhile. I finally just started deleting posts that added nothing, made a few topics about how I would like to see conversation conducted, and talked to the people who were causing problems. We even lost a very good Magic player and person whom I enjoyed having on the team a lot, James Gates, partly because of this. But, after identifying the problems and making several extremely long posts that began to look like college dissertations, I think the team is far better off and the quality of discussion is very high. Yes, there is still some goofiness from time to time, but these are Magic players and they like to have fun. As long as it doesn't pollute discussion, I let it go.

Next, you want to do what you're there for: work on Magic! Have an area where you have compiled contact details, especially messenger addresses. Being able to message people to throw ideas around and playtest Magic over the Internet with people that you know are reliable is an incredible boon. I can't tell you how many times it's been the night before a PTQ and some unexpected idea or situation comes up that I want the answer to. With my network, I just boot up AIM, message several people, and I have responses within seconds telling me what they think, if they've been in that situation/tried that card before, how they think I should sideboard, and even offers of "Sounds interesting, how about we get in a few postboard games real quick so we can test that out?"

It's also good to make it known what events you're going to be at. When people are going to be at events, we help each other out. Meet up, share a room, and arrange to borrow cards—the works. It's more than just a team of Magic players; it's like a community of friends.

Firestarter: Eventide's PTQ Impact

What cards from Eventide do you think will have the biggest impact on the Block Constructed metagame, which is currently being dominated by Faeries? Does any other archetype make significant gains? Are any new decks made possible? Share your thoughts and decks in the forums!

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