Chris Pikula played his second Eldrazi Devastator of the game, moments after the first crashed in for eight damage. That was enough for Round 5 opponent Archibal Sanchez-Peralta, who extended his hand in defeat moments later.
“Good games; it was an honor to play against you,” Sanchez-Peralta said. “Do you think you could sign my playmat before you go?”
With a small smile and a nod, Pikula graciously complied.
“It’s great when someone respects you enough to ask you to do that, but the truth is the last few years of Magic have been pretty bad for me,” he said later. “At some point I just have to accept I can’t compete at the highest level anymore, and that’s been hard. To be honest, I’m a little bit of a mess right now when it comes to Magic.”
Pikula is a man conflicted. Happily raising a son while working full-time, he’s content with his life outside of Magic. At the same time, he admits to being disappointed with every loss, especially those he knows he could have won were he more practiced. For a man who spent the majority of his life around the game — a career that many feel deserving of the Hall of Fame that he so narrowly missed out on a few years ago — it’s been a difficult balance and a constant struggle.
“It’s hard for me to wrap my head around what Magic is supposed to be for me right now,” he explained. “I really do just like playing Magic, but it’s hard to have a family and compete at the top level. I think to be among the best, you need to spend at least every other weekend playing Magic, and that’s not realistic for me. But I’m not good at just being happy with my past accomplishments.
“And there’s always the Hall of Fame thing.”
It’s that last part that makes Pikula’s story so different from any other player who has struggled to find the balance between competitive Magic and the rest of their life, and it’s what hangs over every game of Magic he sits down for.
Pikula has been around professional Magic since the beginning. He competed at the very first Pro Tour in New York, finishing 26th at the tournament almost exactly 20 years ago. Two-hundred and thirty-nine players competed in that event, less than a third of how many showed up to compete alongside Pikula in Mexico City and less than a tenth of how many are competing at the Grand Prix this weekend across the world in Nagoya, Japan.
Success came quickly to Pikula, who posted back-to-back Top 8 appearances at Pro Tours Atlanta Dallas late in 1996, follow by another Top 8 two years later at Worlds in Seattle. While he was reaching the top of mountain with regularity — two Grand Prix Top 8s followed in 1999 — the summit eluded him. That changed with the 2000 Invitational in Kuala Lumpur, when he knocked off Johnny Magic himself, Jon Finkel, to claim the title. With the title came the spoils, and Pikula was given the opportunity to design a Magic card that has endured ever since—Meddling Mage—even though he admitted then he didn’t think it would end up being very good.
Pikula and his Mage. He was wrong about just how good Meddling Mage—which has endured through the years — would be.
That was the high point for Pikula. He attended a few more Invitationals in the following years but family and work slowly pushed him out of the professional scene, a development he lamented in a 2002 interview with Wizards of the Coast reporter Toby Wachter.
“I can still be a good Magicplayer, but it'll be hard for me to be a great Magicplayer again, and that just... I've been playing for a long time and sure, it's still fun, but at one point I was a great Magic player and now I'm not. It's hard to play and lose when you used to never lose,” he said then, the same sentiment he shared in another interview 14 years later at Grand Prix Mexico.
Though largely removed from the professional scene, it seemed likely that Pikula would eventually end up enshrined in the Magic Hall of Fame when it was created in 2005 — the same year that saw a mini-resurgence as Pikula made the Top 8 of a pair of Grand Prix to bring his career total to four to go along with three Pro Tour Top 8s.
But things never quite came together for Pikula, though they came tantalizingly close as many campaigned for his inclusion based not just on his resume but on his wealth of community contributions. The culmination was missing the Hall of Fame by a scant 1.6 percentage points in 2013, the same year that a change was made to require 150 lifetime Pro Points for consideration.
Pikula, having missed induction by a mere handful of votes, stood at 133.
Now you know why Pikula is signing playmats at Grand Prix Mexico City.
Chris Pikula got off to a hot start at Grand Prix Mexico City, and was matched against No. 18 Lee Shi Tian at the undefeated table in Round 7.
That’s the baggage that sits down at the table every time Pikula plays a competitive match of Magic, and it’s what has made the game that’s been a part of his life for more than 20 years suddenly so complicated.
“It’s actually been a lot of stress when I consider the one tournament a month or so I am able to play — am I supposed to go to the regional PTQ with friends or fly to the one that might be a little easier? I’ve stressed over it probably more than I should have,” said Pikula, who has raised his career Pro Points total to 143 since falling so agonizingly close three years ago. “At the same time, I know I can’t go deep. My kid is about to turn 10 and spending time with my family is always more important.
“When I map out the next five years of my life in Magic, I don’t know what it holds. I could spike a tournament and qualify for the Pro Tour or get back on the Hall of Fame ballot. And that would be great. But if it doesn’t happen, I really do just enjoy playing Magic.”
Pikula started out Grand Prix Mexico City undefeated at 6-0. Could this be the weekend the Meddling Mage finds himself once again eligible for the Hall of Fame ballot?
We’ll see what the cards hold.