Sam Black: A Career Made in Madison

Posted in Event Coverage on December 11, 2016

By Marc Calderaro

Watching Madison staple nineteenth-ranked Sam Black build his draft deck, I was struck with déjà vu. Two Minister of Inquiries? Two Whirler Virtuoso? Two Attune with Aether? Yeah, we've seen this from him before. He was on camera at Grand Prix Atlanta, with a suspiciously similar deck.

The Rashmi, Eternities Crafter and six Disappearing Act were different, but the shell was quite intact. Gain energy; stall the board while spending the energy; win the game with spent energy. (PS – He only played three of the counterspells. But man, what a great way to (a) trigger Rashmi on your opponents' turn, (b) return Aether Theorist to your hand for more energy later, and (c) actually hard-countering an opponent's spell to boot.)

"It's one of the decks I like," Black said. "It's one of the better decks in the format."

"Lot of synergy, lot of consistency ... Aether Theorist gives a lot of ability to mitigate the risks of Limited."

"I was very excited about energy the second the mechanic was spoiler." Black continued, "It's a great mechanic for me to play—the idea of a resource that doesn't replenish itself that you can use anytime. It means you can do things you want to do with it, but you don't feel compelled to do something every turn."

This cerebral approach to the game, combined with barely paralleled success, is exactly what made the Sam Black name known worldwide. Well, that, and the whole "Winning a car" thing.

Sam Black's name is synonymous to the world with Madison Magic, but it wasn't always that way. Black was a relative late-comer, and had to ingratiate himself to the original crew well before he found his success through currently thirteen Grand Prix Top 8s, multiple Pro Tour Top 8s, and one car.

"I went to college in a small town between Madison and Chicago—in the middle of nowhere, really." Black continued, "The kind of place where no one ever leaves the campus, you know? So I played a lot of casual multiplayer, but wasn't playing in tournaments very much."

During some of the college summers, Black lived in Madison, but didn't necessarily find a warm welcome in the community. "It was difficult to break into, for sure." He sat back a laughed a bit. "There's definitely an article on the evolution of the difficulty of getting into the Madison community, but I don't know if it's something you really want to get into."

"At that time, the ‘good' players would always draft at the local store, or wherever it could be, on Wednesday nights. It was an institution." He continued, "There was a table of people who would draft by themselves, and everyone else would get into random pods." Those were the players people wanted to be playing with.

Though that sounds insular, which it admittedly was, from their perspectives, it was a bit different. Madison-core-to-the-max Adrian Sullivan said on that, "Look, we were all testing together, because so many of us were qualified for the Pro Tour." He followed, "And there would often be spillover. There were more than eight people." He continued, "Sometimes there were 10 or 11 people, and they would want to draft too. There were definitely some opportunities for others to get their drafting in." And they took those opportunities, especially Black.

Black insists that during the course of a year or so, "I went 33-3" at these spillover drafts. "And I was like, ‘Guys, Come on.'" He shrugged and smirked, while giving that head-tilt side-eye he gives. See for instance:

When reached for comment, Sullivan responded: "I will not comment on what record he might have had during that period." [Sullivan side-eye]

But Black persevered, and figured it all out. "I mean, I grew up in the Chicago area ... so I'd heard about the ‘Madison crew' and saw them at PTQs and stuff." At that time the crew were known for Limited mastery (and Constructed disinterest, much to the chagrin of Adrian Sullivan), and they would show up to PTQs and just smash peoples' faces in.

"Once I moved to Madison for good, and I opened up a store, that's when I started really getting into the Madison Magic scene."

There were still trials, for sure. In social settings, Black has never shied away from stating and defending his positions, regardless of who he was up against. The Madison crew was no different. "One time in an Onslaught draft, I took Severed Legion over Dragon Roost first pick—a pick they did not agree with. I 3-0ed, but despite that, I think they thought less of me after that ... "

"... I mean, I did continue to defend the pick after the draft." Of course he did. He smiled.

After his initial humps, Black endeared himself to the group. Soon the success began rolling in. Now, Black is right to deflect attributing his success to the Madison crew. "Truthfully, I don't know where it came from; I mean, I was playing games all the time at that point."

But whatever the causality, not too long after that, basically, Sam Black won a car.

The rest is history.

Yesterday, we looked at the Madisonians in the beginning, then buttressing Mike Rosenberg's Worlds article we talked to Sam Black—part of the middle era of the crew. But what about the present and future for Madison?

As luck would have it, about this time, Pro Tour Fate Reforged Finalist Justin Cohen sauntered up and sat down with us. Though a Madisonian well into the past, he was known for too long as "Sam Black's roommate"—now merely vestigial nomenclature.

The two talked about how recently Madison has become more divided. Now that the East side of town has their store and the West side has theirs, it's more stratified.

"Mox Mania sends a lot of people to GPs, but we often don't know who they are," Cohen said. "I know, because I see the playmats all the time." Both he and Black lamented the feeling of less cohesion from the community overall, though they both understand how and why it happened. "There's always one or two people who qualify for a Pro Tour, and I just don't know who they are."

But, as we alluded to earlier, the thing that still brings all of Madison together is Ben Rasmussen's draft weekends. Rasmussen hosts a huge weekend event where everyone qualified for the Pro Tour comes and prepares for the imminent tournament.

It's ballooned over the years, and if you aren't one of the 40 players to be there when the queues fire at 10 am, well, no one feels bad for you if you have to wait until 1 pm for the next one to fire.

That semiannual event is one of the two big unifiers in the greater Wisconsin community. Cohen mentioned the other: "Jasper."

Jasper Johnson-Epstein is one of the crew who many would describe as past, present, and future. Though he's only converted to Top 8 success once at Grand Prix Oklahoma City, both Cohen and Black know he's on the precipice, and he's also the uniter in Madison.

"Jasper plays [at both stores]—he's actually the most connected person in Madison," Cohen said.

"He's been there forever, and he's been playing publically forever. He just knows everyone." Black added. "Him, and Eddie Song too." Song of the famed, invented "camping outside Severa's house" story in the Severa article yesterday.

As far as the future goes, Song, Johnson-Epstein, and Grand Prix Miami winner, Daniel Cecchetti were mentioned names. "And definitely Louis; he's right on the edge," Black mentioned. "Louis Kaplan. he was an Iowa guy, playing with McClain. He got married moved to Madison ... definitely under three years ago." They said he's definitely a player to watch. "He's disciplined, and he wants it."

Louis Kaplan

"And don't forget Tenjum," Cohen said. Andrew Tenjum has had great success on the SCG Circuit, and has brewed at least three decks in just the last year or two that completely changed the worldwide metagame. "White-Blue Eldrazi in Modern, Red-White Vehicles in Standard." Black said.

So even though the community is more split than earlier, it still reflects the difficulty that Black had breaking in oh so long ago. And just like then, there is promise, potential, and eventuality still there in the Madison community.

And if Severa can wait 17 years to see his greatest success at the Pro level, and if Black could take years to get to the practice level he needed to push forward, who's to say what's next for the Madison Magic players, both new and old?

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