If you have been following the PTQ results coming into the Tournament Center over the past few weeks—or reading this column or Top Decks—you will have seen a handful of familiar names that will be making their Pro Tour return on the sunny beaches of Hawaii. Pro Tour–Honolulu Top 8 competitor and owl aficionado Tiago Chan picked up a blue envelope as did everyone's favorite tie-dyed keeper of dragons, Brian Kibler. Included on the list of blue envelope recipients were a pair of Pro Tour champions from New Jersey; Sliver Kid Chris Lachmann won a Philadelphia PTQ playing Elves while Osyp Lebedowicz took down an invite in his home state a few weeks back.
I talked with the two PT champions about how they came to play Magic, win a Pro Tour, and then fight their way back onto it through the PTQ circuit. First up was Osyp, who has been off the Pro Tour for a little over a year since starting a full time job as a marketing analyst, although he is quick to point out that he did not fall off the train due to any atrophy of his skills.
"I never felt like I was bad and fell off the Tour," explained the Pro Tour–Venice winner. "I fell off the train because I could not go to as many events looking for a job and then starting work. When I fell off I had 19 points and I only went to three events. I just made a conscious decision that I couldn't go to as many events. I don't think you ever stop liking Magic. Other things occupy your time and you can't play as much. I have been doing that for over a year now. It is a little more stable."
Magic players will always explain that no one ever really quits the game, something that became apparent to Osyp shortly after he and another Dungeons amp; Dragons–playing friend wandered into a local game store during his senior year of high school.
"We were randomly going into a store to buy Damp;D stuff and we saw people playing [Magic] and then we started playing," Osyp recalled. "It is pretty addictive. I would literally think about it all the time. In New Jersey there was a tournament every day of the week—from Monday to Sunday—and a lot of them were for cash. There was a point when I started playing Magic that I played a tournament every single day of the week."
While he was playing in tournaments, Osyp was not immediately drawn into the PTQ scene. He aspired to learn from some of the local players like a very young Josh Ravitz and former NJ State Champion Skye Thomspson but he did not actually hear about the Pro Tour until he crossed paths with one of New Jersey's most famous Magic players.
"The first time that I actually heard about the Pro Tour was when I went to this store Time Zone Comics. I was just sitting around playing and this fat kid with an afro walked in, dropped a box of Homelands on the table, and just says, 'That's the worst set I have ever seen,'" said Osyp. "He walked out and just left the cards there. I was like "Wow, all these free cards. Who the hell was that guy?" They were like, "Oh, that's Jon Finkel," and they explained to me that he was the best player and told me about the Pro Tour."
From there Osyp decided to check the Pro Tour out first hand at Pro Tour–New York (which, despite the name, was held in Secaucus, NJ), and the excitement from that event would lead him to try his hand at qualifying—it would also expose him to another future Hall of Famer as well as the mechanic which would be at the center of his most successful deck many years later.
"That was the crazy Urza Block Pro Tour," said Osyp. "I went to the Pro Tour and I saw Zvi there. Back then he was really noticeable and I watched him play. His deck was kind of crazy. I remember going online and reading about him in the coverage. I generally love Constructed more than Limited and he was one of my favorite players growing up, mostly because of that event. He played a deck that looked so complicated to me at the time that I just didn't even understand how it worked. I think that really influenced me. I never thought about building a deck that complex before. I was usually just attacking with random creatures and trying to do land destruction stuff. It was not until I saw that deck that I started thinking about building decks on the level of combo or control or anything like that."
As any PTQ player can tell you, wanting to be on the Pro Tour and getting there are two very different things. It was not until Osyp began assembling a group of players around him that would become the foundation of Team TOGIT that his luck began to change—although it may not be fair to put it all on luck.
"I tried to make my way by building my own decks. Then one year I met Gerard Fabiano at States and we sort of became friends. He sort of just said, 'Do you want to get together and test?'" said Osyp of the turning point in his PTQ career. "I never got together to test before. I usually just built the deck the morning of the tournament and went there. Gerard invited me over to Russ Harnew's house and we started testing. Then all of a sudden I realized that helped."
"I started doing a little better but the biggest moment was when I went to a store called The Only Game in Town and I met Eugene Harvey, Patrick Sullivan, and Adam Horvath. They were in the same boat as me—they weren't qualified for the Pro Tour."
They may not have been qualified but they had a secret weapon in Eugene Harvey who had been attending school at Carnegie Mellon, the home base of Team CMU, which included the likes of Randy Buehler, Mike Turian, and Erik Lauer. Eugene came back to Jersey armed with the methodology that team used for tournament preparation and a channel of communication back to the team.
"I would say that between meeting and Gerard everything connected and we started doing well in PTQs. Honestly, I would not have done anything in Magic if it was not for CMU and TOGIT," said Osyp, who greatly benefited from that relationship when he finished just out of the Top 16 at his very first Pro Tour.
"My first Pro Tour was New Orleans and I came in 17th," recalls Osyp. "That was because Adam and Eugene and Patrick built the deck. The weird thing was that at my first few Pro Tours I did really well. After coming in 17th I came in Top 32 and then my third one (Osaka) I Top 8ed. I would have not done any of that without CMU. They gave me the Psychatog deck, they taught me how to draft the morning of San Diego, and taught me all about Extended in New Orleans. I don't even understand how people can do well on the Pro Tour without a team behind them—or at least a group of people that are as good as or better than they are. At that time they were all better than me."
I had a chance to watch Osyp firsthand through that period as he played regularly at Neutral Ground in New York and was always near the top of the standings in the weekly Grudge Match tournaments. His irreverent humor and sarcasm were already well developed at that point, and it was not long before he became a Magic celebrity. What was interesting to me throughout that period was despite his irreverence in all other areas Osyp always seemed open to new ideas and players when it came to Magic.
"You really can't be dismissive," agreed Osyp when I brought this up. "That's the one thing that I learned that takes a lot of time for people. Magic players tend to sarcastic and dismissive but you have to take the good with the bad and filter through to find what's good. Otherwise you are going to miss a lot of stuff. Even a bad article can give you a good idea. I read random strategy forums a lot. I soak up a lot of information now—more than I did before—because I don't have a testing group. I have to do more research on my own and that just means that you can't be dismissive."
"I was helping people test for Berlin, and Steve Sadin built an Elf deck with Dizzy Spell in it and people dismissed it right away because it had Dizzy Spell in it," he continued to illustrate the point. "It was a bad version but you can't dismiss a concept because it is the initial pass. A version of that deck went on to become the deck of the tournament. If you dismiss stuff you are just going to get screwed."
Block Constructed was a recurring theme throughout our interview. It was the format through which he became exposed to the Pro Tour, the format he will be playing in Hawaii, and the format he played to become the Pro Tour–Venice Champion.
"I really like Block but Block was really easy back then," he said, looking back at his most successful tournament. "I think Wizards has figured out how to design sets specifically better for Block Constructed. Back then there were basically just one or two decks for Block. I knew it was just Goblins or Slide. It was basically a gamble. I just built a Slide deck that was really good against Goblins, and CMU was all onboard and they built a sideboard. I tested the Slide mirror over and over and over again. I played an entire day of Slide mirrors—that was essentially my testing for that Pro Tour. There were only two decks and I knew that the fringe decks did not have a sick mechanic like cycling or the aggressiveness of Goblins. They would either lose to Slide or lose to Goblins and if I could survive the first few rounds I would only play Slide or Goblins for the rest of the tournament and I would be fine."
"In the mirror match, Game 1 was a little bit about luck—who would draw their enchantments first—but after sideboarding a lot of it was about patience," he said of the mirror match, which is what the Finals of that event came down to. "People would hold their cycling lands to cycle them as opposed to playing them out there. You just want to make you land drops. You don't need to dig for anything in that matchup because it is so slow, so you just want to play lands and draw your Avarax."
Preparation is a topic that reared its head again and again throughout our conversation, and when I mentioned that to Osyp, he once again looked back to when he first saw Zvi playing in Secaucus.
"I remember reading an article that Zvi wrote after making the Top 8 with his Fluctuator deck. He said that you could see how that preparation affected a Pro Tour because everyone who played his deck—their success was directly relational to how much they prepared. He prepared the most and made the Top 4. I think he said Gary Wise prepared the next most and he made the Top 16. You could actually see what level of preparation people had put in based on their level in the standings. That really resonated with me in the beginning."
Heading into Hawaii Osyp has no doubts that he will be able to put in the time and energy to tackle the Shards of Alara Block Constructed format but has some concerns about whether or not he can have the same impact on his Limited game.
"It is sort of important to prepare for a Limited event but you kind of hit a wall," he explained. "The difference between playing 100 matches of Limited and playing 200 is kind of negligible, but you really cannot play enough games of Constructed to be adequately prepared. There are so many different decks and so many different variables. The same is true of Limited, but you will never be able to see all the variables so you hit a wall that you can't hit with Constructed. I will test for hours and hours when I am playing Constructed. There is always something new to figure out, especially with a sideboard being involved."
"I guess you basically just do what you love," he said, admitting that there could be different personality types for the two formats. "Me and Turian used to have completely different opinions. He loved to draft and I loved to test Constructed and I would generally do better in Constructed events. I don't mind sitting down and playing the same match over and over again because I am trying to solve a problem and I am going to keep at it until I solve that problem. I think that it comes down to what kind of person you are; are you more analytical or are you more creative? That is basically how you can break down Constructed and Limited."
After a conversation with Josh Ravitz about the quality of play on the Pro Tour today, Osyp decided he wanted to see how he would fare and began playing in PTQs with an eye toward a return trip to the Sunday stage in Honolulu. While it was not his first choice of deck, it was not long before Osyp was once again cycling with a Slide deck.
"It was really good against Faeries and had a pretty good matchup against beatdown and I decided to play it mostly for those factors," he said of the Slide deck that emerged atop a 244-person NJ qualifier. "The truth is that at a PTQ you just don't want to lose to yourself. I was pretty rusty. I went to a PTQ before [the one I won] and played TEPs, and I played a mirror match where I am pretty sure the guy just outplayed me. I decided not to let that happen again and played a deck I was familiar with and could play well. I don't think the deck is a great deck for the metagame or anything; the main reason I played it was that I would not mess up with it as much as I would playing a deck like Faeries."
"I think the biggest card is Path to Exile," Osyp answered when asked what pushed the deck over the top for him. "I basically took the deck that Cedric Phillips played at a Grand Prix and added Path to Exile to it. Slide was always generally good against beatdown decks but you could still lose if they got a nut draw but Path to Exile makes that not happen. It makes life so much easier against a Gaddock Teeg or Arcbound Ravager. It just made the deck a lot better than it was before the new set came out. I basically played the deck because I wanted to play it with that card."
For Osyp one of the exciting aspects of the Pro Tour will be seeing old friends and the other was perhaps a little revenge: "Mark Herberholz messaged me and invited me to stay in their house. I was thinking, 'Man! I hope we can play in the Top 8 again. Maybe this time I can beat him and win the Pro Tour.'"
The week that Osyp qualified he clashed with another New Jersey PTQ winner in the closing rounds of the Swiss. He and Chris Lachmann were about to draw themselves out of contention when the PT–San Diego champion conceded to Osyp, who would go on to win. Chris was playing Elves at that tournament and knew that deck was not as dead as many prognosticators believed. Just this past weekend the little green men got him back on the Pro Tour at a 220-person PTQ in Philadelphia.
Like Osyp, Lachmann had to walk away from the Pro Tour for work reasons in the middle of last season. He took a job in Curaçao that he has only recently returned from, and he immediately thought about requalifying. I spoke with him and he recounted his start in Magic as a casual player back in the days of Ice Age and throughout middle and high school playing with his friend and co-champion Jake Van Lunen, now the author of Building on a Budget.
"The first event I played in was the first Grand Prix–New Jersey, and I missed Day Two by one win," Lachmann recalled of his first foray into competitive Magic. "The next event I played in was the Grand Prix in Tom's River. I made Day Two there and won a little money. I think at that point I realized I was pretty good and I wanted to start getting some PTQ experience. The rest is the whole Silver Kids story, but the PTQ we won was one where we just decided to go that morning. Then when we won we kinda had to go to the PT."
From there it was a whirlwind weekend that saw the two rookies get crowned as champions: "It was definitely bizarre—a little bit surreal. I did not even realize what had happened until the next day."
While he did fairly well over the remainder of that season and the first half of the next, with a couple of money finishes, he could not pass up the chance to work in Curaçao.
"It was pretty tough. I thought I might be able to get to one Pro Tour while I was there, but it just didn't happen," he said of the experience. "Still it did not feel like I was walking away from the game or anything. Even if I had been there for five years and then came back, I am sure I would still get back into it."
"I have been back a month or two," he said of his PTQ efforts. "There wasn't really much of choice. I love the game and will go to every PTQ and most of the GPs here in the States. It was a pretty easy decision."
"I think Elves has been under the radar for most of the season since Faeries has been dominating," said Lachmann of his deck choice. "I knew that a lot of people would be playing this Next Level Blue deck, and that deck is really slow and does not have a lot of counter-spells. The only removal they have is Engineered Explosives. It is really hard for them to deal with all your creatures on board and stop you from going off. I also added Chokes to the sideboard to make the matchup better too."
I asked how it felt to return to the PTQ scene after last playing competitive Magic on the Pro Tour level.
"The level of play is a little bit under the PT maybe but you still have to respect all your opponents and play as well as you can to win," replied the always pragmatic Lachmann. "In that respect it is no different than the PT really. There are a lot of good players in the Northeast. I played Matt Ferrando, who wouldn't stop complaining about how he had to play two GP winners and a PT winner during the PTQ."
Like Osyp, Chris was eager to tackle the Block Constructed format for Hawaii.
"I actually played a bunch of Block when it was triple Shards of Alara and have started to play again now that the two sets are out," he said. "It seems like it is going to be very exciting. There are a lot of powerful cards."
You can get a look at the online Block format in Decks of the Week, but Chris recalled that the format he last saw featured "the White Weenie deck with Ajani Vengeant, the Jund deck with a lot of removal that would ramp up to Violent Ultimatum, and the deck that I was playing which took all the best cards in the format and put them in a deck with some Obelisks and tried to cast them all—eight Ultimatums, it was pretty greedy. I am pretty excited about the domain mechanic. I think Voice from the Void will be pretty awesome."
While Chris was looking forward to Block, he was really looking forward to the draft format and the new split-format of the Pro Tour.
"I am really excited about that," he said of the change to include Constructed and Limited at every Pro Tour. "When I was in Curaçao I was really mad when they announced it. I wished all the previous season's Pro Tours had been held like that. I love Limited and it gives players a little more leniency too. If you show up and called the metagame completely wrong for Constructed you still have Limited to get some wins."
Osyp Lebedowicz qualified for Hawaii by playing with the same mechanic that he used for his Pro Tour win. So did Chris Lachmann—sort of.
"My deck had two Viridian Shamans main and after sideboard I had six cards that could destroy an artifact," he said with a laugh. "I won the final game of the semis with a Harmonic Sliver to blow up my opponent's Worship when I was at 1."
- Firestarter: First Impressions
Both Osyp Lebedowicz and Chris Lachmann credit their early Magic friendships with a large role in improving in Magic. Osyp also credits seeing Zvi and reading about him in the coverage had a long standing influence on how he approached the game. Who were your early Magic role models, be they local players or Pro Tour personalities viewed from the Tournament Center?