To get into the Hall of Fame is another thing entirely; you need to appear on 40% or more of the weighted ballots across the Player Committee and Selection Committee in order to be enshrined alongside the likes of Jon Finkel, Kai Budde, Gabriel Nassif, Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa and the other twenty-nine wearers of Hall of Fame jewelry. Just ask Ben Stark and William Jensen, both of whom have been eligible on multiple previous ballots but failed to cross that elusive threshold. While Jensen has statistics that have always made a strong case for his inclusion, his career had minimal overlap with many of the voters. Advocacy for Jensen by a number of Hall of Famers has helped get the word out about his career.
For Stark, coming into the last season, his numbers were right on the cusp for many voters but his most recent Top 8 at Pro Tour Gatecrash was enough to push him over the top. With three Top 8s already on his resume, he got the inkling that the Hall of Fame was a possibility when he added number four—but that did not diminish his excitement when he heard the news.
"I still felt great when I found out I made it," said Stark. "A lot of people started telling me they were going to vote for me after I Top 4ed PT Gatecrash . And I saw myself on a lot of the ballots people wrote articles about and tweeted so I started to feel pretty good about my chances."
It has been a long time coming for the Florida native who began playing the game in 1994, when he entered middle school as part of a math program for gifted students. While he knew nobody who played the game during elementary school, he estimated that a full third of the boys in his new classes were playing the game that would become such a huge part of his life for the next two decades.
"I tried it and got hooked," said Stark, who would start playing in PTQs four years later. Within a small handful he had qualified for his first Pro Tour. "My dad drove me up to this Sealed PTQ in Tampa—about three hours away from where we live. I just won. It was my first PTQ Top 8, maybe the fourth PTQ I had ever entered."
Stark was just fifteen at the time and turned sixteen by the time the Pro Tour itself rolled around. He had low expectations about how he would perform and no real way to measure how good he was at the game. It took a couple of years, but by 2002 he was able to "get on the train" and qualify for multiple Pro Tours in a season. Pro Tour Houston was a big turning point for the still-teenaged Stark.
"PT Houston 2002 was probably my favorite Pro Tour," said Stark, who was not even qualified for the tournament until the very last minute. "I played Pattern and that deck was so much fun, plus I won the Last Chance Qualifier the night before so I was just stoked to be playing. I got 33rd, which was my first 'good' finish on the PT and I played my first feature match there."
Stark put up a couple of Top 8 finishes over the next two seasons in San Diego and Kobe and was being talked about as one of the best young players in the game, when he stopped playing due to work commitments. He knew that he was not going to be able to put as much time into preparation as he had in the past and was worried about embarrassing himself by not being up to his own standards. He never stopped playing the game, habitually drafting online, and eventually the lure of competition pulled him back at the end of the last decade. He fought his way back to the Pro Tour through PTQs and Grand Prix and eventually became the Limited expert for Team ChannelFireball.
Working with that team at Pro Tour Paris, he earned his Pro Tour trophy and the talk of Hall of Fame began to surface. There was a smattering of votes, but he was not close before adding a terrific season to that already impressive resume—61 Pro Points, four Grand Prix Top 8s, and a win in Indianapolis.
Ben Stark, Pro Tour Paris 2011 winner
"The PT Top 4 was obviously the main thing, but I cashed Seattle as well," said Stark, who agreed with voters who did not cast their ballot for him the previous year. "My resume was definitely still short the year before and I just had a really good year, which kind of put me where I needed to be, statistically speaking."
Stark now joins the likes of Jon Finkel, Bob Maher, and Kai Budde in the Hall of Fame, and he could not help but reflect back on when he was starting out as a young PTQ hopeful.
"When you look at that list of players, it's all the guys you looked up to as a kid," said Stark. "It's the guys who have made an impact on Magic and Pro Tour history. It's a huge honor."
It was another set of role models from his childhood that he singled out for thanks upon learning of his election to the Hall.
"My parents for sure. They were so supportive of whatever I wanted to do in my life. They would drive me to PTQs ten hours away and let me start flying all over the world when I was sixteen. They have just always supported me in whatever I liked and believed in and I would never have been able to be a Pro Magic player if not for their love and support."
William Jensen hoped he would get into the Pro Tour Hall of Fame after missing induction by a single vote last year. He was a popular choice and his name was bandied about on many public ballots.
"After missing by one vote last year, in what was probably one of the toughest classes of all time, I felt that I would likely gain votes, and people who voted for me in previous years would be unlikely to leave me off their ballots this time around," said Jensen, who was nonetheless deeply moved when he did get the call.
"For the first minute or so, I just stood in place, sort of stunned, and reflected back on my life. As it started to set in a little, I became completely overcome with emotion. I am not ashamed to say that when it all started to set in, I was moved to tears."
Jensen has been playing the game since childhood, starting in 1996 when he learned how to play at summer camp. Always a highly competitive person, he immediately sought out local tournaments in the Massachusetts scene. Within a few years, that tournament experience paid off and qualified him via rating for his first Pro Tour in Rome.
"I wasn't really sure what to expect," said Jensen of that first experience playing at that level. "I obviously hoped to do well, but I was definitely intimidated by that level of competition. I actually didn't end up doing particularly well, failing to make the cut to Day Two."
He made his debut on the Sunday Stage a season later, when he made the Top 8 of Pro Tour Chicago 99–00. He would go on to win the first-ever Masters Series event held at Madison Square Garden in New York—one of the toughest tournaments in the game. Two more Top 8s came during the 02–03 season, including another Chicago event that, now, has five members of the Top 8 in the Hall of Fame. The crowning moment of his career came at the first event of the following season when Jensen—one of the most feared and respected Team Rochester players in the world—knocked the Kai Budde–led Phoenix Foundation off of its pedestal and seized the trophy.
William Jensen (center) as part of The Brockafellers team that won Pro Tour Boston 2003
"Without a doubt, my best memory of playing on the Pro Tour was winning Team Pro Tour Boston in 2003 with my best friends Matt Linde and Brock Parker," said Jensen of playing with The Brockafellers.
Jensen retired from the game soon after that and has had to reacquaint the Magic community with himself as a person and with his resume.
"I think a reason why some people didn't vote for me last year is because they didn't know me personally and also didn't really have much to judge me on outside of stats. After my return to Magic at Pro Tour Return to Ravnica , my fire was reignited and I began to attend nearly every event. I think people getting to witness my play firsthand, and getting to know me as a person, certainly led to more votes."
Jensen, who plans to play in every Pro Tour for the foreseeable future, felt that his election to the Hall punctuated his time in the game.
"Being enshrined in the Hall of Fame is the highest honor I could ever hope to receive in my lifetime. It is an exclamation point on my career playing Magic, which I have devoted a huge part of my life to. To have my name in the annals of Magic history alongside names like Finkel, Budde, Maher, and Nassif gives me a feeling and a pride that is very hard to put into words."
There were many people he wanted to thank upon learning of his inclusion in the 2013 class, not the least of which being the Player Committee and Selection Committee members who voted for him.
"I want to thank my parents, for always supporting and believing in me. My mom, for really allowing me to indulge my obsession by spending hours every week driving me all over Massachusetts to play tournaments. My dad, for always being encouraging and supportive of me, regardless of the tournament results having been good or bad.
"I want to thank my friends. All of my closest friends have been made directly or indirectly through Magic. The friends I have made through Magic have contributed immeasurably to me as a player, and more importantly, as a person. I wouldn't be in this situation today without all the friends I've made."
His last thanks go all the way back to his early days playing in those local Massachusetts tournaments.
"I'd also like to thank Tom and Judy Shea, owners of TJ Collectibles in Milford, Massachusetts. They really went above and beyond as the owners of a local game store. In addition to providing a place to play, they gave me countless rides to tournaments or home from their store, so that I was able to attend weeknight drafts, or other tournaments, often multiple times a week. Also, they were supportive in terms of cards, sleeves, or anything else I needed. I'm sure they don't realize how big of a difference they made in my maturing as a player or as a person. But, I can say with reasonable certainty that, without them, I would not be receiving this honor."
When you talked to anyone about this year's Hall of Fame ballot the name Luis Scott-Vargas was inked on top with the other four votes perhaps in pencil. Known affectionately as LSV, his resume as a player, community builder, and paragon of good sportsmanship put him at the top of the class regardless of what order you ranked the criteria for Hall of Fame. Even the modest player from the Bay Area himself expected that his name would be called when the ceremony at Pro Tour Theros in Dublin commenced.
Luis Scott-Vargas (popularly known as "LSV")
"Even looking at it objectively I had pretty good stats compared to everyone else on the ballot. That was enough for me to feel pretty comfortable," said Scott-Vargas, who appeared on all but a handful of ballots. No player has been unanimously voted into the Hall and LSV did not think he would be the first. "I would obviously hope for it but I did not think it was very likely. I thought it was wrong when Finkel and Kai and Nassif did not get 100% of the vote. That is what I have always felt. I don't like gaming the system."
Despite knowing it was all but a foregone conclusion he would be elected, he did feel as though a valve had been turned to lessen some internal pressure when he finally got the good news.
"It felt really awesome. Even if it was something I thought was going to happen it was still a relief and something I really wanted to happen. It was a culmination of a lot of what I have played Magic for," said Scott-Vargas, who will now not need to chase after his Player's Club status while trying to balance a professional life outside of the game.
"I was already thinking of backing off Grand Prix and not going to the ones that are not easy to go to and this just makes that a slightly easier decision."
Like his teammate Ben Stark, Scott-Vargas began playing nearly twenty years ago when he and his oldest friend Seth each armed themselves with a Revised Starter Deck and a booster pack of The Dark. They played constantly against each other, even if they did not fully understand how to play the game correctly—much less at the high levels that LSV would dominate later in his career. He stopped playing for a little while, but even then he stayed on top of news about the game and its competitive scene.
He began chasing the PTQ scene in the early 2000s and once he came close to the Top 8 he had the fever—even if the now-seasoned world traveler could not possibly imagine leaving the ground to play the game.
"The guys at the local shop I was playing in were going to a PTQ and said it would be fun. I said 'Okay I will go'. It was fun. I lost to David Ochoa playing for Top 8, so after that I was definitely a little more fired up," he recalled. "There was a Pro Tour in San Diego and I really wanted to qualify since I could drive to it—this was before I ever even considered flying to a Magic tournament. I had Top 8ed a PTQ for New Orleans and then conceded to a friend because there was no way I was going to fly to a tournament—that just didn't make any sense."
He did manage to qualify for that event—and even made Day Two, although he did not cash—and it told him that he belonged. The cash would come a year later when he found himself in a battle for the Top 8 of Pro Tour London in the final round of Swiss play.
"I ended up qualifying for London in 2005—David Ochoa also qualified for that one—and at the end of Day Two was 11–3 and was the only player who could not draw into Top 8. Tomi Walamies could draw but we had to play. I ended up losing and finishing in like 14th."
He could have become one of the many players who crash upon the rocks off the coast of the Top 8, never to test those waters again, but just one year later he burst onto the scene alongside one of his closest friends in the game.
"What really got me started when was Paul Cheon and I did well at US Nationals. It was the first real breakout performance for both us. We were both on the National team; Paul won the tournament," said LSV, who would win Nationals himself a year later.
"That was pretty much up there, but winning the Pro Tour in Berlin—that was also my first Pro Tour Top 8 and that was something I had been hoping for for some time. It was a pretty big deal, winning there. Paul was there, as was my roommate at the time—Matt Benjamin. He also qualified and we played Round 1 of the tournament," he laughed before adding: "The friendships are really why we are at the Pro Tour."
Luis Scott-Vargas, Pro Tour Berlin 2008 winner
Scott-Vargas would go on to dominate the Pro Tour from that point on, including his memorable Finals match against fellow Hall of Famer Gabriel Nassif in Kyoto and his perfect Swiss record at Pro Tour San Diego—the only player to ever accomplish such a feat. All in all, he would reach the Top 8 of a Pro Tour five times, thanks in no small part to the domination of the super team he assembled, which now boasts five Hall of Famers with Stark, Shuhei Nakamura, Brian Kibler, and Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa as members of the ChannelFireball murderer's row.
While there had been super teams in the game's past, they had become much less prevalent. Under LSV's guidance, the team adapted rigid playtesting schedules and would establish a foothold in the city of each Pro Tour for a week in advance. While other teams have formed and had similar success, for a couple of years, they had a clear competitive advantage on the field and would set the tone for each format's metagame with their monolithic performances.
Getting rewarded for that hard work and preparation with a Hall of Fame ring was gratifying for the Pro Tour Berlin champion.
"It is a recognition of why I play Magic—and how long I have played Magic—and what the game has meant to me. It has been a huge part of my life and is responsible for me knowing a vast amount of the people in my life. Getting into the Hall of Fame was just a culmination of all those things. I don't know where my life would be without Magic. And I am not particularly interested in finding out."
Friendship was a recurring theme throughout my conversation with the new Hall of Famer and that is where his heart went when asked about who he wanted to thank upon learning of his election.
"Me and Paul Cheon started on the Pro Tour together, and even though he had to leave in 2008, he was a huge part of it. David Ochoa, Josh Utter-Leyton, and all the guys on Team ChannelFireball all made it possible for us to have the great results that I have had—like Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, one of my oldest friends on the Pro Tour. All those guys—old and new—are the ones who I would not be in the Hall of Fame without."
Team ChannelFireball members (l–r) Josh Utter-Leyton, Conley Woods, LSV, Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa
Congratulations to the 2013 class of the Magic: The Gathering Pro Tour Hall of Fame. You will be able to watch these three players get inducted live at the start of the webcast of Pro Tour Theros in Dublin, Ireland, and follow them straight into their Round 1 Feature Match coverage. See you then!