Chapter 16-Heroes…



THE SCENES AT the first Pro Tour had demonstrated the vicarious pull Magic could exercise on spectators gathered in hushed ranks around the action. But as my fading interest showed, there were still challenges to creating aspirant Pro Tour players on a wider scale.  

One thing the game needed was for role models to emerge, who could be celebrated in the game’s media. But Wizards were worried that finding heroes in among the Pro Tour ranks might prove a little harder than plucking the star player from a championship-winning sports team or PR-ing the front man of a rock band. The game was still largely the preserve of a games- store demographic – one earning some deserved time in the spotlight thanks to the Pro Tour — but would compelling, charismatic, confident celebrities reveal themselves from a previously maligned group? And what if the game itself proved less skilled and more luck-based than its creators believed? That would not only undermine the notion of professional Magic as a competitive ‘sport’, but, if Top 8s (the direct knockout rounds) featured a different line-up of fortunate players each tournament, how could any stars of any staying-power hope to emerge?  

While a generation of brilliant minds would answer the question of the game’s skilfulness, the first question was not something Wizards would leave to chance. Stars are not born, they reasoned. They are made. Heavy coverage would be given to the Pro Tour players in a new supplement to The Duelist. Called The Sideboard, after the supplementary 15 cards players can swap in and out of their decks between tournament games, it would focus entirely on competitive play. The holy grail of coverage though would be television – and here Seth Matlins’ experience proved crucial in negotiating a deal with ESPN2 to show potted coverage of the Magic Pro Tour. While Wizards could not convince ESPN2 to go the whole hog and broadcast a reality show built around the Pro Tour competitors, the early Pro Tour broadcasts which dotted the network’s schedules went some way to cementing the status of the new professional Magic caste. By buying up time on the channel, says Rick Arons, Wizards were sending a message to all their players: “Hey, we know you’re serious about this — and we are, too. We’re going to bring legitimacy to the game.” It acted like a call to arms to Magic players and it was one they would wholeheartedly embrace.  

WHEN CAMERA CREWS began conducting vox pops of the first Pro Tour fields, they asked players whom they most wanted to play against. One by one their interviewees would reply with the name on everyone’s lips, the player who at the Pro Tour’s inception was regarded as the world’s best. He had won US Nationals in 1995 (as well as two Type I tournaments on the same weekend), under the watchful gaze of Skaff Elias and R&D’s Mark Rosewater. His methodical play and consistent results helped allay their fears that winning Magic tournaments was purely down to luck. For his peers meanwhile, he was the man to beat. His name was Mark Justice and he came from Salt Lake City in Utah.  

Justice, already in his early twenties when Magic came out, owned a chain of sports-card and comic book shops in the city. Like many similar shop-owners he was keen to diversify when the outlook for his current wares became grim. Magic was the lifeline he stumbled upon, and with the help of a deep pool of nearby players, he quickly immersed himself in it. When local tournaments started to appear, Justice became hooked. He is by his own admission a competitive guy — and Magic became a proving ground for the young man raised in the Mormon faith.  

What Justice discovered during his first forays into competitive Magic was much more than a battleground upon which to demonstrate his talents. He also found himself surrounded by a vibrant community, who were opening his horizons – despite the sideways looks they attracted from the Salt Lake mainstream. “There was definitely a nerd stigma to Magic back then, but it didn’t matter to me,” says Justice. “The people I was meeting were smart individuals who I enjoyed talking to about far more than just Magic. If these were the geeks – I wanted to be associated with the geeks.” It was a huge leap into a new world for Justice, who had grown up ina nearby small town steeped in traditional faith-based values. While he had grudgingly complied with those, here was a community he genuinely felt something in common with, a visceral kinship that would greatly impact his identity. His Magic nickname swiftly became the ‘Stormin’ Mormon’, but if anything, the game was Justice’s sanctuary from qualms about the faith he had been raised in. Here was a chance for him to shed the fetters of his religious upbringing. And he would do everything he could to earn this smart and secular community’s embrace.  

What the clean-cut young man from sheltered Salt Lake did not realise, though, is just how much everyone on the Pro Tour wanted a piece of him. Not just rival players, but Wizards, too. This, they figured, was their would-be champion. Justice had a string of big wins under his belt (as well as Nationals in 1995, he also helped the US win the team portion of the 1995 World Championships) and could demonstrate how skilful Magic was to the game’s widened audience. He also seemed to boast the maturity and composure to be an advocate for the Pro Tour. His sixth-place finish at the first-ever professional event in New York sealed Wizards’ belief – Justice would be the face of their intellectual sport. “In hindsight,” says Justice. “I wish that had never happened.”  

THE CREATION OF the Pro Tour had an instant impact on standards in the game. Suddenly, here was the justification players needed to practice and improve. It was the green light — or greenback – that said it was OK to pour time, money and passion into a hobby built on brains rather than brawn. With rewards as great as many sports and crucially rewards that were quantifiable to the man on the street, the Pro Tour was cathartic for the brainy kids sat at home on Usenet rather than slogging it out on their local sports field. As Peter Adkison puts it, “We created a lifestyle opportunity for a young generation of Magic players, fresh out of school, to be professionals.” No-one wanted to pass it up.  

The most tangible knock-on effect was a steep rise in collaboration between players. The second Pro Tour would be held in Los Angeles (earning a full-page announcement in The Duelist this time) and would be fed by Pro Tour Qualifier tournaments or ‘PTQs’. This framework allowed players to focus their efforts and strengthened the Magic community as players travelling from PTQ to PTQ began to make lifelong friends, bound together by a common goal. Teams began to coalesce in California, Boston and at Neutral Ground in New York. The Dojo hummed with activity as players strived to understand the decks dominating the new metagame. And Usenet members shared in the highs and lows of its community heroes as they battled for a place on the Pro Tour. Robert Hahn wrote a seminal tournament report after winning a PTQ feeding Pro Tour LA, that not only brilliantly translated the elation of scaling new heights, but inspired others to try harder, play better and, in the case of Mike Flores, to write about their exploits in the game. It’s five in the morning and I’m up because… well, I’m alternatively tired beyond belief and filled with adrenalin, began Hahn. It’s a weird state of existence. Ijust thought I would post a little report on my experience earlier tonight (actually, last night by now) as it was my first time winning a large (250+) tournament. This may get long, so bear with me, or skip on to the next thread… No- one did. Instead, they lapped up the ecstatic account of Hahn’s PTQ triumph and through him lived out a little of their own dream to reach the professional ranks.  

HAVING PLAYED IN regional events in Southern California, Justice gravitated towards his friends there to further his game. Along with Mark Chalice, Henry Stern, Mario Robaina and a core of Californians, Justice became part of the most impressive early team roster in Magic, the Pacific Coast Legends. The Legends, like the other teams forming, became R&D departments for the players, where the sharing of ideas and information proved critical in evolving the understanding of deck technology and in refining strategy. Says Justice, “Some of the decks that we created early on, on our own, were very primitive naturally, compared. to the sophistication of modern decks. Collaboration played a major role in not only developing the game but strengthening the community as a whole.”  

While it did not reap immediate dividends for Justice at the second Pro Tour in Los Angeles, his collaboration with the Legends was part of a process of travelling and growth that left him wide-eyed. Even today, Justice has only fond memories of the people involved in the Pro Tour’s early stages. Not just his team-mates and the opponents desperate to beat him, but the Wizards employees who became integral to the Pro Tour caravan. Skaff Elias was the “wise sage” of the Pro Tour, says Justice, an even- handed and fatherly figure who became a mentor to the youngsters playing the game and seeing the world for the first time. Justice has good memories of Mark Rosewater, too. As Wizards continued to try and afford their would-be champion exposure, Justice was asked to help provide colour commentary of the Pro Tour Los Angeles final – a face-off between two New England rivals, Tom Guevin and towering arm-wrestler Shawn ‘Hammer’ Regnier. Justice and Rosewater had no official commentary booth and were instead rammed into a phone box together to analyse the four-and-a-half hour match. “It was fascinating, though,” says Justice. “Hammer absolutely mentally destroyed Guevin.” At one point Guevin had to excuse himself from the final to throw up in the bathroom, so intense was the enmity between the players on the biggest stage in Magic. Hammer, unsurprisingly, won that one.  

But despite all the good times, storm clouds were gathering on the horizon for Justice, as he ventured ever further from his roots back home.  

WHILE THE EARLY adopters of Usenet and the Dojo may have been gradually pulling the Magic community tighter together, as if tugging on the laces of a corset, the world remained a stubbornly big place in 1996. While it might seem parochial for an American company and American community, producing and playing an American game, to rush to celebrate a local lad as, ‘the best player in the world’, a little myopia was to be forgiven in less-connected times. Although Magic had begun its translation into other languages since the release of an Italian Revised Edition in 1994, who really knew what brilliant players were incubating in card shops in Japan, Germany, France or Sweden? The Pro Tour was a way of finding out – and Wizards had done their best to invite foreign players, like Bertrand Lestrée, to the inaugural event. By the time qualifying was up and running for the third, in Columbus, the PTQ programme had become far more cosmopolitan – and the players gunning for Justice’s unofficial crown. increased in diversity.  

Olle Rade was a willowy, 17-year-old Swede with striking, shoulder-length blonde hair. He had taken a year out of school to do a work placement at a local game store in his native Gothenburg, having inherited a love of all things card, board and dice- based from his dad. Rade senior was a journalist by day, but a gaming aficionado by night, who sat on the jury of a Swedish gaming-industry prize. His son, who had taken up Magic with the release of the Revised Edition 18 months previously, now had enviable access to cheap Booster Packs and a steady stream of opponents to practice against. During quieter hours in-store, Rade was honing his skills and, having read excitedly about the Pro Tour in The Duelist, was determined not to miss the first local PTQs.  

Sweden’s early Magic scene was strong, as evinced by Leon Linback’s third-place finish at the very first Pro Tour. Along with Lestrée, he was one of only two non-North Americans in the Top 8. Although not known personally to Rade, he was an example of just what local players were capable of. The practice Rade was getting in against the card-slingers wandering into his shop each day then, was of the highest quality. Rade could soon hold his own and demonstrated as much at one of the local PTQs in the run up to Pro Tour Columbus. Playing a mono-black deck designed by early innovator Adam Maysonet around the powerful card-advantage engine Necropotence, he reached the finals, together with a friend. That qualified both players for the far-flung tournament, so the pair decided to split the airfare portion of the prize. Rade then twisted the arm of his local store (where he had worked unpaid all year) for the other half. Then, he readied himself -as much as any 17-year-old readies themselves for anything – for a trip to a far- off land to play cards.  

Rade made it to Columbus unscathed, but the same could not be said for the rest of the Swedish contingent. Severe delays forced them to miss the start of the tournament, leaving the teenager, on his first trip to America, battling in the Masters section by himself. The fearless young Swede had chosen to play in the older age bracket, rather than the Juniors, to be with friends now stranded in an airport somewhere. With a dose of Scandinavian stoicism, Rade shrugged his shoulders and got on with playing Magic, just as he did every other day of his life. After a friendly opening match against Canadian Peter Radonjic, he began to relax and decided to enjoy his American adventure, whatever happened in the tournament.  

Despite losing his opener to Radonjic, Rade settled into an unflappable rhythm and began to rack up wins. He lost only one further match that day and made the cut for the tournament’s second day. As the ‘Little Viking’, as he was immediately dubbed, continued to do well, his expectations started to grow. Having hoped to make day two – and done so – Rade began wondering if he could perhaps win a little money. As the wins continued on day two, he began to wonder if he could win enough to buy a copy of his then favourite card, the pricey Arabian Nights rare Juzam Djinn. Then, as he lost only once more in the regular Swiss-pairings portion of the tournament (where players are matched against opponents with identical records), he began to believe he could win enough to buy four Juzam Djinns – he was on a roll!  

By a stroke of luck, so was his first-round opponent. Rade ended up playing Radonjic three times in total during the course of the tournament as the pair’s fortunes became intertwined. Rade lost on day one, beat Radonjic on day two and then faced the Canadian again in the semi-finals. The quiet teenager won through here, too, to reach the final, but cemented a friendship that has lasted to this day. Rade’s biggest take-away from the tournament, though, was something more tangible. Smashing everyone’s expectations, the Gothenburg teenager beat Sean Fleischman in the final, to become the first non-American to win a Pro Tour. He received a cheque for $22,000 in the process, a slight disappointment to the young player who had imagined he might somehow be awarded the cash immediately. The Juzam Djinns would have to wait for his return to Sweden, where his slightly concerned. parents were also waiting for news of just what he was up to.  

 “For some reason, I just forgot to call home,” says Rade, who also admits he was less than crystal clear to his parents about where he was going for the weekend. “I don’t think my mum even knew that I was in the US!” he says. Eventually, the Rades called up Wizards of the Coast to explain that they thought their son might be playing in a big tournament – and could they perhaps find out how he was doing. “He won!” came the reply —a great shock for the worried but very proud parents. When Rade returned home to face the music, having celebrated with a big meal in the US with the Swedish players who did eventually make it to Columbus, he found himself feted by his family and friends. In fact, a summer news drought meant that he even made it on to the front page of the newspaper where his father worked – as the young Swedish star taking on the world’s best, in a global gaming phenomenon.  

ONE MONTH LATER, the 1996 World Championships – now incorporated into the Pro Tour calendar – were held at Wizards headquarters in Seattle. Anticipation was suitably fevered in the build-up and many expected Mark Justice to claim the title that would rubber-stamp his status as the best on the planet. The invitation-only tournament pitted 125 players against each other, using a skill-testing mixture of three different formats, for the chance to win $26,000 — as well as bragging rights and a place in the rapidly expanding Magic history books.  

As the tournament shook out, Justice did maintain his impressive form, reaching the final against an unknown Australian player by the name of Tom Chanpheng. This would, most assumed, be a walkover for the home-grown hero, who turned up to play the match in a suitably grandiose three-piece suit. But fate had other ideas for Justice, who most observers believe threw away the finals.  

Rade, meanwhile, had also kept up his streak and had reached the semi-finals to finish fourth. The high finish meant he accumulated further ranking points for professional play – so-called ‘Pro Points’ – which, together with those he had earned in winning Pro Tour Columbus, propelled him to number one in the professional standings at the end of the first-ever Pro Tour season. Much to his surprise, he was awarded Magic’s inaugural Pro Player of the Year Award, a title he hadn’t even known existed. It earned him Pro Tour invites and travel and accommodation for the following season, which meant he would extend his break from high school by another 12 months (not that his supportive parents minded) and garner a little more of the stardust being sprinkled on the newly famous ranks of Magic pros.  

In contrast, Justice, having reached the finals, had done just about enough to maintain his stellar reputation. But with competition intensifying and pressure building (some self-imposed, some not) to be top dog of the new Magic landscape, Justice was at a crossroads. The direction he took startled everybody.