Chapter 17-..and Villains


..and Villains  

MORMONISM Is A Protestant sect whose guiding doctrine, the Book of Mormon, was written by 19th-century prophet Joseph Smith Junior. Smith claimed to have found buried golden tablets containing the book’s text with the help of angelic guidance and translated and transcribed their meaning into his work. His followers grew in number, but facing persecution in their native New York, were forced to relocate. At each turn, they faced yet more confrontation, until, following Smith’s death in 1844 at the hands of a mob, a large number settled peacefully in Utah. There, they gave birth to sons and daughters and raised them in their faith, until one day in 1970 a boy named Mark Justice was born to them.  

In accordance with Mormon teachings – in particular a commandment called the Word of Wisdom – Justice grew up abstaining from substances that could pollute his body, including tea, coffee, tobacco, alcohol and illegal drugs. Similarly, he married young and within the faith, as recommended by the Mormon Church’s teachings. But something was eating away at Justice and though he did his best to conform to his family’s, and to his community’s, expectations, he could no longer believe in the teachings that ruled every aspect of his life. One day, when he showed his young wife his new hobby, Magic, she was distraught. “Mark,” she told him. “You have brought the devil into this house.”  

Magic may not have been the cause of Mark Justice’s problems, but it appears to have been a catalyst. This wonderful game, so gleefully mastered by the wholesome man from Salt Lake City, provided him with a tantalising glimpse of a community to which he wanted to belong. But at the same time, it placed him under pressure he was woefully ill-equipped to cope with. The certainties he had been brought up on began to erode at a startling rate. “As Magic was occurring,” says Justice, “that whole world of mine shattered.” Stepping out of the confines of his strict upbringing seemed to light a fire in Justice – as if he were suddenly consumed by a realisation that he had been cheated. That the values he had been brought up on had somehow hindered rather than helped him. As if he had, until then, been living out his life as someone he was not. Wrecked by the disharmony inside him, there was only one path left open to the raging Justice. He had been brought to a precipitous point by his meteoric rise. Now, to dig out who he really might be, he began to tear down the person everyone thought he was and who he was sick of being. As the Pro Tour really kicked into gear, Justice says, “I began to self-destruct.”  

Concretely, that meant a painful divorce that would represent Justice’s break with the Mormon faith. At the same time, he was travelling ever further afield to play Magic — and trying to win not cash, but acceptance and self-esteem in the process. Wizards had made no secret of their desire to see him do well – and although the Pro Tour was the only thing Justice felt he could rely on for structure at the time, the need to perform was also sapping his desire to play. Instead of playing for the love of competition, he felt like he had to do well, to justify the faith others were placing in him. He says he was naive at the time and thought being the face of the Pro Tour would be great. But quickly that turned into a nightmare as the public spotlight revealed the extent of the personal problems he was having. The wide world and its temptations provided Justice with the tonic he thought he needed to soothe his woes — but it also provided him the means to fulfil his subconscious desire to tear himself apart. Beneath the glare of the cameras, the other players, the fans watching at home, and of the Wizards staff who had placed their hopes in him, he began to indulge in ever-greater quantities of drugs and alcohol. By the end of the first Pro Tour season, he was perched at the top of a slippery slope. His fall would be long and excruciating.  

AS MUCH AS Wizards wanted a hero like Justice to front the Pro Tour, they were also aware of the value a good villain can have when it comes to selling a compelling sporting narrative. While they might have been conflicted about whether they should go out of their way to create one – in the manner professional wrestling might, for example – they eventually accepted that should a bad boy appear on the scene, they would harness his reputation for their promotional needs. What they might not have expected, however, is just how bad that bad boy would be – and how gleefully he would take to the role of Pro Tour villain. If Mark Justice appeared – at least outwardly – to be the Luke Skywalker of the piece, Mike Long would be its Emperor – ambitious, fiendish and larger-than-life.  

WHAT APPEARS TO have driven Long on, was a burning desire for the kind of status that Justice enjoyed in Magic’s early years. He, too, wanted to be regarded as the best on the planet and, as it transpired, he was not afraid to put noses out of joint on his quest for recognition (if not adulation). He was by all accounts a brilliant player and a wildly creative deck-builder. But he quickly polarised Pro Tour fans with a brand of gamesmanship Magic has scarcely seen since. Long was not alone in taking advantage of ill-defined rules for tournament behaviour and less-than-rigorous policing by the volunteer judges who were still learning to get to grips with high-stakes Magic. But at times he veered into excess, in a way that would forever besmirch his reputation. He was eventually banned by the DCI for one month in 2000 for failing to present a sufficiently randomised deck, but had also aroused officials’ suspicions on two previous occasions. First, at the US Nationals in 1998, he was found with a key card from his deck in his lap. Then, at Pro Tour Los Angeles in 2000, he was given a warning for improper shuffling. Fellow players complained bitterly about his behaviour and the inexperience of the judges on hand.  

While others who prospered in the grey areas of early professional Magic did so discreetly and slipped out of the game with their reputations intact, Long was so happy to revel in his bad-boy image that every move he made was scrutinised for skulduggery. Besides, it was hard to miss him. Often, he would sit with his feet perched on his chair, rocking back and forth (perhaps surreptitiously leaning forward for a sneak glance at his opponent’s hand), babbling endlessly in a loud voice, shouting to people across the room – in short, doing everything he could to get inside the head of the player across the table from him. If he could ruin their concentration, it was easy to snatch a win.  

Long quickly became a compelling part of the Pro Tour – someone fans and detractors wanted to watch in equal measure – and who unquestionably made tournaments more exciting. Even Justice, who makes no secret of the animosity that existed between. the two at the time, concedes that Long played a vital role in hooking Magic fans to the Pro Tour. “Competitive events are better when Mike Longs are part of them,” he says. “Having people to root against creates passion. And although I don’t think he was much fun to be around on a personal level, he was wonderful for Magic in those early days.”  

Numerous early pros were guilty of subtle transgressions, be it fiddling with the dice they used to track their life points, sneakily drawing or concealing an extra card, or leaning in close to an opponent’s hand to deduce its contents from minute printing differences on the cards’ backs before opaque protective sleeves became commonplace. But it was the nonchalance with which Long greeted rumours of such behaviour that created his legend. While everyone was busy trying to see if he was cheating, he could apply his excellent play skill to win against a distracted opponent. In essence, Mike Long was playing a game that extended far beyond the cards laid out on the table, a liminal one, pushing at the boundaries of the acceptable because it was inherent to his own vision of gaming. He appeared to derive as much satisfaction from playing with the assumptions and laws of the community as he did playing the game (of Magic), which opponents thought they were sitting down to play with him. He was, simply put, winning at his own personal metagame. And Magic fans, as well as the Pro Tour organisers, lapped it up. “I am the world’s number one Mike Long fan,” says Skaff Elias, before comparing him to baseball’s notorious Ty Cobb, a player once described. as, “daring, to the point of dementia.”  

The high point of Long’s career came in April 1997 at Pro Tour Paris, the first Pro Tour to be held outside the United States. Long was playing a complex ‘combo’ deck of his own design. The idea of a combo – or combination deck – is, as the name suggests, to assemble a combination of cards that together will outright win the game. Instead of having, say, a variety of answers to an opponent’s threats like a defensive control deck, or trying to overrun an opponent with a swarm of quick creatures like an ‘aggro’ deck, combo decks tend to have a very clear and linear plan – to draw or find the cards they need to win, while protecting them from opposing disruption. Long’s deck for Pro Tour Paris is largely credited as being the first combo deck with the necessary resilience to win big tournaments, where the high variance in combo strategies often reveals itself over the course of so many rounds: for every game you assemble your deadly combo and just win, there will be other games you draw all the wrong cards and, being such a linear deck, cannot meaningfully disrupt your opponent in the meantime. Long’s deck, built around the enchantments Squandered Resources and Cadaverous Bloom, aimed to generate incredible amounts of mana before killing its opponent with Drain Life, a black sorcery whose potential as a finisher had first been exploited by playtester Charlie Catino during Magic’s earliest days at the University of Pennsylvania. If fuelled by enough black mana, Drain Life can kill an opponent in one fell swoop — much like a black Fireball.  

The deck, dubbed ‘Pros-Bloom’ because it also used blue spell Prosperity to draw cards, was testament to Long’s deck-building genius. Accordingly, it swept him to the finals where he faced none other than Mark Justice. In a quirk of history, Justice was playing a deck he had borrowed from Long in the queue to register for the event. With his divorce ongoing and his home life falling apart, he had had to be talked into attending the event by Wizards’ Mark Rosewater. Packing zero cards for the trip (and with absolutely no preparation under his belt), he originally intended to take a trip to Paris at Wizards’ expense and find solace hanging out with his Pro Tour friends.  

He might not have counted Long among that group, but nonetheless, they decided to split the winnings for first and second prize before playing the final, with an extra $500 to go to the eventual winner. While that meant Justice played in a relaxed and sometimes slapdash manner, it did not detract from Long’s desire to win at any cost. Here, after all, was his chance to topple the man whose crown he desperately wanted, by beating him in person, regardless of their deal, something viewers or readers at home would know nothing about.  

With Justice lulled into believing that the final would be played out in relatively casual fashion, Long went for the jugular, deploying his typically audacious gamesmanship. His deck was constructed in such a way that it would win, once the combo had been established, by casting Drain Life. But because the actual kill card was only needed right at the death, Long included only one in the deck. Rather than draw redundant copies when they were not needed, Long relied on card-drawing effects to grab the singleton copy only once all the other necessary combo pieces were in place. This was a risky design choice and unusual for the time. And it caught Justice off-guard.  

In game one of their best-of-five final, Long miscalculated as he attempted his one big killer turn. Forced to remove Drain Life from the game to generate mana with his Cadaverous Bloom, Long’s plans fizzled and he was unable to assemble the rest of his combo. But, because he had willingly ditched his Drain Life, Justice was tricked into thinking Long must have more than one copy in the deck.  

Having noticed Justice’s mistake, Long toyed with his rival in the remaining games. In game two, as Long began to assemble his combo, he summoned all his braggadocio to convince Justice it was not worth their time for him to go through the required iterations and – yawn – conclude the tedious business of actually killing him. Wouldn’t it be better if Justice just conceded so they could move on to the next game? Justice did. And the incessantly babbling Long smirked at his free win.  

Later, before game four, Long went even further. In a breathtakingly audacious move, he switched the Drain Life out of his deck into his sideboard. He now had no way to kill Justice. But having seen the ease with which he had drawn a concession from his opponent, he thought he could do it again. This time though, Justice raced to a win, to set up a deciding game five. Here, Long put his kill card back into his deck and set up his combo. As he was doing so, he showboated, flashing the Drain Life to Justice. He then took an agonising amount of time to play out his win, gradually revealing the entire contents of his deck to show Justice that all along, he had had just that one killer card. It was an excruciating end to the final and a sadistic conclusion to the pair’s rivalry. Long was crowned Pro Tour Paris champion.  

While Justice says that, with the money already split, he was not playing with his usual rigour, Paris was symbolic of a worrying change in mindset for the would-be champ. Upon his return to the US, he moved up to Seattle to freelance for Wizards and escape his crumbling home life. In effect though, he was giving up on Magic. “I moved to Seattle about a month after Pro Tour Paris,” says Justice. “After that, I never attacked the game with the same seriousness again.”  

Instead, attracted to the hedonistic party scene based around Seattle University, Justice sunk his efforts into a relentless charge towards the bottom. Imbued with a misguided sense of his own indestructibility – gleaned from his early rise in Magic – he emptied bottle after bottle of booze into himself, began playing every tournament fried on acid and topped it all off with the occasional cocaine binge. It was a giant ‘fuck you!’ to the Word of Wisdom, but a miserable descent into the black for one of the Magic community’s smartest and most engaging personalities. “There was no limit to the amount I would drink,” says Justice. “I wanted to be drunk. I don’t know if I was an alcoholic during this time – or how you might define it – but I had a problem. And with drugs on top of that, I was spinning out of control.”   

Justice’s self-inflicted nosedive soon led to him aping the worst kind of behaviour in the Magic big leagues. One notorious incident took place at Grand Prix Atlanta in March 1998. Grand Prix were the second-tier of Magic tournaments in Wizards’ organised-play pyramid, large open events where Joe Public could duke it out with the pros for the top prizes on offer – including cash, Pro Tour invites and Pro Points. In Atlanta, though, Justice was less than the hero fans might have been hoping to come up against. Blasted out of his mind on cocaine and no longer listening to the rational part of his brain, he made a decision he regrets to this day – and which tarnished his reputation forever.  

In the Draft portion of the tournament, where players take turns to select cards from Booster Packs passed around a table of eight players until they have assembled enough for a deck, Justice drafted several copies of a powerful creature called Muscle Sliver.  

Muscle Sliver gives all other ‘sliver’ creatures + 1/+1. As the bonus is cumulative the more copies of the card you have in play, its impact is improved the more of them you have. Ideally then, a deck playing with the card would play as many copies as possible. The deck Justice registered to play with at the conclusion of drafting contained an impressive four. When a judge checked his deck, however, he noticed that one of the four copies of the card was clearly from a different print run to the other three. Justice claimed he had indeed drafted four copies of the card but accidentally thrown one away. He told the judge he had then bought a replacement from one of the traders in the room to replace the one he lost. The judge asked Justice if he would come with him and search the trashcans in the room to prove his story – and when Justice declined to, he was disqualified for cheating. With Justice refusing to fess up to his crimes, he muddled on with a cloud of doubt hanging over his name for the rest of his playing career, one that has been enough to keep him from ever being selected by Magic’s great and good for the Hall of Fame. Since the Hall of Fame’s inception in 2005 both he and Long have remained its most notable exiles.  

What really happened that day? Speaking publicly about the incident for the first time, Justice says he had become disinterested in Grand Prix. To him, they had become as meaningful as playing at the kitchen table. Filled with chemically assisted cockiness, he was following no-one’s rules but his own. “I remember drafting three Muscle Slivers,” he says. “And whatever triggered the idea, I just thought it would be really fun to have a fourth.” He approached a local card dealer at the event to buy a fourth and it is this dealer who, in all probability, alerted the event judges to Justice’s purchase. Certainly, it seems the player was beyond caring, beyond even trying to hide the deceit. He cheated, and was caught fair and square. The halo hovering over him when he had arrived at Pro Tour New York two and a half years previously was shattered.  

 “Looking back at that incident, I think it shows just how unhappy I was with myself on a lot of different levels,” says Justice today. “I was not making good decisions in any area of my life. And I paid the price for that.” For one, that means forever being mentioned in the same breath as Mike Long when cheating allegations are discussed — something that Justice dislikes but accepts comes with the territory. Having shown himself capable of cheating once, all of his Magic achievements have been cast into doubt. And though he has no way to defend himself, he has learned to live with the Magic community’s aspersions. Today he is a father. And would rather explain to his children what mistakes he made and why, rather than covering anything up.  

Those mistakes persisted for a while. And one by one, Justice burned nearly all his bridges in the community that had meant more to him than anything. The most painful aspect for Justice would be leaving the Pacific Coast Legends and the friendship of players like Mark Chalice, with whom he had conquered so many early tournaments; shared so many wonderful experiences. Wizards, too – despite trying hard to give Justice advice and to help him out of his funk – eventually could take no more of him and stopped offering him work. Justice says he was acting like a jerk. He was no longer an asset to the company. The rise to the top of Magic and his fall from those dizzy heights cost Justice everything. Looking back, it still fills him with sadness. “My one last word of wisdom,” he says, “is for anyone who gets caught up in the making money, the competitive thing: the relationships you build in those times are far more important than the wins and losses that occur. Always try and climb the mountain, always try and win any tournament you enter, but doing so at the expense of the relationships you have built will leave you with regrets for the rest of your life.”  

A little over a year on from Grand Prix Atlanta, Justice left Seattle and began drifting around the US. When his money ran out, he crashed finally, blissfully to rock bottom. He was a penniless former hero, burned out and broken. It was a full-stop at the end of a turbulent passage in his life, that saw him overwhelmed by the freedom he had found for himself. He had desperately torn down the world around him, throwing out the good with the bad in a drunken rage and substance-fuelled hubris. It was the bitter end of a card-slinging Icarus. He has not played Magic since.