Chapter 18-The Best There Ever Was


The Best There Ever Was  

AS OLLE RADE had shown, there was no shortage of candidates willing to take up the mantel of ‘best player in the world, in those early, formative Pro Tour years — especially once it slipped so decisively from Mark Justice’s troubled shoulders. Still, it was a source of anxiety for Wizards to see the Pro Tour as famous for its bad boy antics, unsporting behaviour and meteoric burnouts as it was for its skill or exemplary heroes. While the game’s professionalisation brought with it the inevitable side-effects of letting a bunch of young guys (because it was predominantly guys) off the leash, flying them round the world and throwing money at them, what it initially failed to produce was a generation of ‘professionals’ in sprit, rather than just name. For that, a little time was needed — for players to reach their prime who had grown up within the new structures and strictures of high-level organised play. For whom. the Pro Tour naturally existed as the pinnacle of the game – rather than as a brand-new proving ground for the settling of scores between local scenes or, in some regards, between Magic players and a society from which they had felt outcast. Before they could -thanks to the Pro Tour’s prize money — prove the value of being smart.  

It was something that one young man – no more than a boy really, when the Pro Tour began — had always struggled to prove. He grew up feeling marginalised, awkward and lonely and was brutally bullied for his fiercely burning intelligence, puppy fat, thick glasses and untameable hair. His mother was a maths teacher and his dad was a computer programmer and together they had raised him to be as agile with numbers as they both were. Too agile for the students he found himself in class with. Too clever sometimes even for his teachers’ tastes. Growing up, he felt perpetually like a fish out of water and today uses the word ‘pariah’ to describe his younger self. In 1996, he played in the Junior portion of the very first Pro Tour. By 1998, he was Player of the Year. By 2000, he was World Champion. His name was Jon Finkel.  

FINKEL SPENT Most of his childhood in New Jersey, with his mum, dad and sister, steeped in a brain-boosting home environment. His cerebral parents coached him intensely and encouraged him to speak his mind. While that might have been a perfectly legitimate parenting recipe, it soon found its limits once Finkel hit puberty. School went from being somewhere where the bright and brash could thrive, to somewhere where the quiet and conformist prospered. In the world of American secondary education, their role was to provide the perfectly mundane backdrop for the athletically gifted to stand out from. It was not an enriching environment for a smart aleck – however smart he may have been. In fact, it quickly became hell for Finkel as the cold shoulder from classmates mutated into physical beatings, day after miserable day. Before long, the young Finkel had started to pile on the pounds, grow his hair into a thick matted mess and disguise himself in baggy, black clothes, in a frustrated outward attempt to embrace his painful otherness. But it did not help. The bullying continued (in one episode his tormentors even urinated on him) and before long, he was playing sick in a last-ditch attempt to avoid the humiliating, hateful schoolyard. “To this day,” says Finkel, “I don’t have a single friend I made at high school.”  

In late 1993, Finkel’s father Mark was transferred in his job at the British Oxygen Company to work in Woking in the UK. He took his family with him across the pond to the strange and unfamiliar island. While it might have offered a reprieve and a fresh start to the young Finkel, any hopes he had of walking into an environment more forgiving of his eccentricity were quickly dashed at his new (and very posh) school, the local branch of TASIS – The American School in Switzerland. The 15-year-old newcomer, uprooted and alone, was made to feel ‘welcome’ with variations on the same taunts he had hoped to leave behind on the other side of the Atlantic. Not long after arriving, he found himself sat at the back of the classroom, scribbling a list in his notebook entitled, 10 reasons to not commit suicide.  

Thankfully, though his list might not have been overflowing with entries, Finkel did find one very important one. One evening, while riding his bike home from school, a faded storefront caught his eye. In a moment of serendipity, the depressed but curious Finkel dismounted for a closer look. The shop was called Fun and Games and lurking inside at the back was a group of guys not too dissimilar from himself. Hunched over a table, they seemed to be playing some kind of card game and welcomed Finkel to join them. It was the first time in a long while that anyone had extended the hand of friendship to the teenage outcast. Only too gladly, he set about learning Magic, the game that would change his life.  

BEFORE LONG, THE lists Finkel were writing at the back of the classroom were ideas for decks, rather than reasons to keep on keeping on. He became obsessed with Magic’s elegant mechanics, captivating gameplay and the chance it gave him to win. Finally, he had found an outlet for people like him, who wanted to compete with their brains, rather than their bodies. The company of people with whom he had something in common was a novelty and the crowd at the back of Fun and Games made the rest of his time in the UK that bit more bearable.  

When his family returned to suburban New Jersey in 1995, Finkel knew his priority would be to find local opponents against whom he could refine his burgeoning Magic skills. Forced to return to the school he had always hated for his final year of high school, the need to seek out card-playing buddies became urgent – and forced Finkel to a game store a train-ride away in New York. That store was Neutral Ground and it quickly became Finkel’s sanctuary from the ongoing ordeal of school. So addicted to Magic was he by this point, that he would often crash on the benches of nearby Pennsylvania Station rather than return home, so he could be first through the doors at Brian David-Marshall’s shop to play in the daily tournaments there. It did not take long for Finkel to become a fixture at the store – and make a lasting impression on its owner. “There was a time when we didn’t realise how much skill was involved in Magic,” says David-Marshall. “We would run a Sealed Deck tournament every morning – which we thought was even more devoid of skill – and Jon Finkel won it every single time.” Sealed Deck tournaments involve players opening sealed product and building their decks on the spot with the contents. In the game’s early days, the common misconception was that success in the format was down to getting lucky and opening the ‘best’ cards, rather than methodical deck construction. “We had no idea how he was doing it – was he cheating? — so we went and watched him,” says David-Marshall. “And that was the first moment we realised just how terrible at Magic we really were. Jon was amazing. And immediately stood out as a singular talent.”  

It was no surprise then, that once the Pro Tour rumbled into motion a year later, the 17-year-old Finkel wanted in. Today, he lives only a half-dozen blocks away from the venue for that inaugural tournament (the handsomely restored Puck Building). But back in 1996, it felt like stepping into a new world – one in which Finkel could prove that, whatever his physical and social clumsiness, his mental game was the sharpest out there. He duly top-eighted the Juniors section and headed home with a $1,000 scholarship in his back pocket. It was enough to convince his parents to pay for him to travel to Los Angeles for the second Pro Tour -and ultimately kick-start the career of one of Magic’s most emblematic players.  

That career continued to burgeon in the Junior division for the first Pro Tour season until the 1996 World Championships at which Finkel stepped up to the Masters age group for the first time. As Mark Justice made his run to the finals to keep his reputation as the game’s best player alive for another tournament, Finkel ambushed the field to finish ninth. It was another neat achievement for his steadily growing palmarés and another three grand for his wallet. The outsize New Jersey nerd was growing in stature and the Pro Tour was taking notice. Finkel was becoming some player — one whose talent for the game of Magic felt innate, as if the game had been perfectly designed for the strange skill set he had inherited from his parents. He was able to think brilliantly on the fly, calculate the game’s probable pathways in an instant and make winning decisions in a snap. What is more, he was strangely unfazed by the Pro Tour’s pressure ~ as if the competitive environment was what he had been looking for his whole life. “I was never very methodical,” says Finkel, appraising his skills today. “But I just had very good intuition and, in my brain, a very fast processor. I’m sure I’m not always the best at thinking things through a ton — but if you want somebody to make a decision really quickly based on incomplete information, for some reason, that’s what I’m good at.” In Richard Garfield’s creation, a give and take of information, a guessing game where each player must anticipate what cards might be hidden in their opponent’s hand, it proved a distinct advantage.  

Finkel’s performances kept improving. In the Pro Tour’s second season, spanning 1996 to 1997, he became a consistent presence at the top tables, racking up three Top-16 finishes during the course of the year (while also abandoning college to devote all his energies to the game). While things on the home front became complicated – Finkel’s parents divorced and his dad forced him to get a part-time job at Domino’s Pizza — his decision would be vindicated as soon as the Pro Tour’s third season rolled around. Deploying all his unnerving intuition, improved maturity and mental fortitude, Finkel made his breakthrough at Pro Tour Chicago in October 1997, cracking the Top 8 for the very first time. It was a huge moment for the young up-and-comer. Here was the confirmation, in the season’s very first event, of what Finkel might achieve if he put his considerable talents to work. No more the victim, he was pocketing thousands of dollars for playing Magic and, he suspected, the best might be yet to come.  

Finkel was not alone in that conviction. Another player had noticed his performances and was sure that this was the guy who deserved a tag he was desperate to lose. That player was Mark Justice – by now on the downward spiral that would end in his ruin -aman, who could only ruefully reflect on what the label of ‘best player in the world’ had done to him. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, wrote William Shakespeare in Henry IV – and Justice had proved every inch Magic’s tragic king, overwhelmed by his own legend and publicly imploding under the pressure. He sure as hell did not want that to happen to his successor. And thus at Pro Tour Mainz in December 1997, as he was puking his guts up over a toilet bowl, drunk as usual, he was struck by a moment of clarity. As Finkel edged past him to use the bathroom, a bleary eyed Justice looked up at the boy he could see was ready to be the best in the world and said simply, “Jon, don’t let this happen to you.” It was a moment that would stay with both of them. For Finkel, it was confirmation of his destiny. For Justice, it was a moment he could think back on with something approaching pride as he tried to reconstruct his life in the following years, knowing he was capable of recognising his own debilitating problems.  

With Justice’s drunken wisdom ringing in his ears, Finkel continued his charge up the professional rankings. His next significant milestone came in Rio, at the turn of the year, winning a Grand Prix there in January. Then came the big one ~ his first ever Pro Tour win in April 1998 — back in New York, back where his Pro Tour journey had begun. This time, he was no kid, and despite the intimidation of an old Magic sparring partner David Bachmann, who liked to pick on Finkel as much as anyone at school had done, he won through. The Bachmanns on the Pro Tour were becoming a dying breed as players wanted not only to win – but to prove that the game was more than just cheats, loudmouths and bores. With his mother watching on, on the closed circuit TV by now being used to screen the finals to hordes of Pro Tour spectators, Finkel ended their grip on power with an emotional, cathartic win. This was a sea change on the Pro Tour – the arrival of its first ‘professional’, a player whose attitude and skill fulfilled that description, as much as his prize money. After the false hopes (like Mark Justice) and the bad boys (like Mike Long), here was the champion that Wizards had been hoping for when they devised the Pro Tour. The crowds in New York cheered his name with glee. This was their hero, too – ‘Finkeltron’, a Magic-playing machine, a triumphant underdog and, under that messy exterior, a truly decent guy. By the end of the season, he was raising the trophy as Player of the Year. A team victory with the US at the World Championships in the summer was the icing on the cake. Finkel really was the best player on the planet.  

If FINKEL’S RISE to the top indicated Magic’s establishment as an intellectual sport, played by gamers worthy of the professional tag, it seems only natural that it should also give rise to an epoch-defining rivalry. No great champion can exist in isolation. There must always be a tussle, a struggle, a point of comparison that marks out that champion’s success as truly great. Sporting history throws up plenty of examples – football’s endless Lionel Messi versus Cristiano Ronaldo debate, the high-octane rivalry between Formula 1’s Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, the bitter feud between Mohammed Ali and Joe Frazier, and so on. The rivalry (a gaming rather than personal one) which followed Finkel’s early success had much in common with all these three examples ~ not simply because it defined an era, but because it could legitimately be said to define its field for all time, too. Two heavyweights, two brilliant careers, two players who will always be mentioned in the same breath when the question arises: “Who is the best Magic player of all time?”  

Back at Pro Tour Mainz, while Finkel sidestepped the drunken Justice, a young German player by the name of Kai Budde was making his full Pro Tour debut. Budde, born and bred in Cologne, also had a maths teacher parent (his dad) and had quickly developed an aptitude for Magic, having discovered the game via friends. He mastered it with the help of a clique of hugely talented local players, including Frank Adler, who in September 1996 in Atlanta, had become the first German to win a Pro Tour.  

Budde was a competitive young man with a burning will to win. He had originally hoped to become a professional footballer and boasted the square shoulders, set jaw and cropped hair of someone who had drilled four times a week and played every weekend, from the age of 11. But when injuries struck in his late teens and reaching the Bundesliga looked like a futile dream, he was left with a nagging void in his life. His competitive streak screamed for an outlet. And it was Magic that helped provide it. The game gave the methodical and driven German a new challenge when he urgently needed one. He launched himself at it with relish.  

Together with his slightly older friend Dirk Baberowski, who was studying in Cologne, he began to hone his Magic skills. On an almost daily basis, Budde would join Baberowksi for a regular university kickabout. Then the pair would head to the local game store to work on their other sport. It was a fruitful partnership and when Baberowski won Pro Tour Chicago in September 1998, the pair knew they were on to something. Their methods, their understanding of the game and their play skill were as good as anyone’s out there — and Budde knew from his testing with Baberowski that his turn must surely come. And verily it did.  

As the new season kicked off in the autumn of 1998, Budde hit top gear, using a series of European Grand Prix as a springboard to the next level. He finished second at Grand Prix Birmingham in the UK in October. Then, kicking the opposition to the kerb with almost unprecedented ease, he added a whirlwind three Grand Prix titles to his trophy cabinet in the following six months. It was a startling sequence of results that represented the rise of a new Magic powerhouse. Budde was clinical, flattening opponents like a rampaging striker on the football pitch. He quickly earned the nickname, ‘The German Juggernaut’ and, despite less Pro Points being on offer at the ‘pro-am’ Grand Prix events, Budde’s streak of top finishes fired him into sudden and unexpected contention for the Player of the Year title.  

Finkel, meanwhile, was blossoming as a person and investing some of his winnings in himself. Given a burst of self-esteem by his success, he began a gradual transformation in the Jon he was showing to the world. Off went the specs for contact lenses, in the bin went the baggy black clothes and, most dramatically of all, off went a few pounds, too. Skaff Elias, mentor to the Pro Tour tyros, had encouraged Finkel to take part in post-tournament basketball games and showed him he had nothing to fear anymore froma little physical exercise. That in turn encouraged Finkel to head to the gym to begin shedding the lumbering, soft body he had been hiding away in since his teens. It was a truly cathartic time for the young champion and a sign of the change the Pro Tour could foster in the lives of its players.  

As real life seemed to open up to Finkel, his hunger for Magic glory abated in the 1998-1999 season. He had had his head turned – by a return to his studies, by his social life and, it would turn out, by another card game entirely — and he felt, that after his glorious 1997-1998 season, he had little left to prove. Still, almost nonchalantly, he rattled off impressive performances – a Grand Prix win and two further Pro Tour Top 8s, even as Budde chased him down in the professional rankings. It was precisely the casual nature of Finkel’s success that seemed to fuel his legend. Here he was, taking his foot off the gas, yet still seeing deeper into the game than many of his peers, thinking more turns ahead and identifying audacious lines of play that only he could make work. It was captivating stuff and, with a contender rising in Europe, made the Pro Tour compelling for all the right reasons.  

Ultimately though, Finkel’s casual brilliance could only take him so far. At the World Championships in Tokyo that summer, the German Juggernaut steamrollered into town. Playing an artifact-heavy mono-red deck built around the powerful creature Covetous Dragon, Budde slaughtered the opposition in a devastating run to the final. There, in a then record quick time of only 20 minutes, he won a one-sided best-of-five match against America’s Mark le Pine to seal his first Pro Tour victory, the World Championship title and, perhaps most significantly of all, Player of the Year ahead of Jon Finkel. It was a shot across the bows not only for Finkel, but for America and its predominant position in Magic. Indeed, the frenzied discussion that would build up in the following years about who was the greatest player of all time, would often take on chauvinistic overtones. It was something that needled Budde as American commentators set him new and unlikely benchmarks to have to reach to match their hero Finkel. But with his usual matter-of-factness, he surpassed them.  

The seasons that followed were shaped by an exchange of victories from both sluggers, like punches shipped across the Atlantic between Joe Luis and Max Schmeling, the American and German heavyweights who captivated boxing in the 1930s. Like those two rivals, though, there was never enmity between the two Magic players, only respect. In many ways, Budde could not have been more different from Finkel had he tried. Perhaps because of his sporting background, Budde took preparation far more seriously than not only Finkel, but also many of the Pro Tour’s hotshot Americans. It was a factor that helped Budde topple them at the business end of tournaments. The diligent German even sought nutritional advice from an unlikely source: two British friends, Ben and Ivan Ronaldson, who were real tennis instructors at Tudor palace Hampton Court in southwest London. In gloriously archaic fashion, they would send him hand-written letters containing not only advice to go easy on the caffeine, but also painstakingly transcribed metagame predictions for forthcoming Pro Tours. Budde meanwhile practiced endlessly online using a rudimentary programme called Apprentice, which allowed players to play a rough version of Magic against each other and test out new decks with a hitherto impossible rapidity. Other friends in the Cologne Magic scene would scour the Dojo and Usenet for ideas. It was a complex and, in every sense of the word, sober operation. “I never drank much alcohol, that’s just not me,” says Budde. “Often the Americans would start partying as soon as they had reached the Top 8, head off to anther strip bar and hit a few drinks. I would test the match-up for the final day and go to bed early and I’m sure that made a difference.” Indeed it did, as Budde’’s Top 8 opponents often defeated themselves with tired, hungover blunders.  

The numbers stacked up on both sides of the debate: Finkel bounced back with an excellent 2000, for example, winning a Grand Prix, US Nationals, Worlds and the all-star Invitational tournament. Budde riposted with a stunning 2001, which featured an incredible three Pro Tour victories in a row, a feat no-one has come close to matching. Budde also sealed a further three Player of the Year awards — from 2001 to 2003, earning over $300,000 in the process. Finkel was never far behind him – and by the time the two colossuses stepped away from professional Magic in 2004, they had altered its landscape forever, catapulting the Pro Tour into a golden age. In total, Finkel clocked up 13 Pro Tour Top 8s in that time, going on to win twice. Budde reached nine Pro Tour Top 8s and converted a stunning seven of those into wins ~a record that is likely to stand for many, many years to come. Together, they became the drivers of Magic’s evolution as a legitimate intellectual sport, underpinned by the framework that Skaff Elias had dreamt up.  

Their success helped re-situate Magic cards as something to be played with first and foremost, rather than hoarded. The cut and thrust of their rivalry at the top of the tournament rankings proved that Magic — despite the dose of luck occasionally involved in drawing the right cards – was a game of great skill. Its best players could beat not only their opponents but also the hang-ups they had been lumbered with growing up. The Pro Tour was giving players self-belief and an opportunity to be really, really good at something. It affected each and every player taking part. And, quietly, it helped chip away at social preconceptions, too. Once- ridiculed ‘nerds’ were morphing into self-identifying ‘geeks’, the gatekeepers of the information age. Their interests, formerly mocked, were drawing grudging admiration at work and at play. Richard Garfield’s dream of sports for the mind had become a little less far-fetched with every brilliant tournament win racked up by Finkel and Budde and they became the standard-bearers for a new, more self-confident generation of brainiacs. Budde even remembers being invited as a guest on a sports programme on. local TV. In the green room, a swimmer and his coach asked him what he did. When Budde explained, they scoffed. Then Budde told them how much money he had won playing cards. The smiles disappeared from his questioners’ faces. The coach turned to his charge and told him, he would have to swim for the rest of his life to earn the same amount.  

As Rob Hahn, who had found his own niche with the game’s help, puts it: “The Pro Tour transformed a lot of young men’s lives for the better. Let’s face it: before the Pro Tour, we were a bunch of nerds. The last to be chosen for a sports team. The guys who were going to be picked on in school. Often, people without wealth, privilege or bright futures. But the Pro tour helped players realise not only that they were smart, but also that it was OK to be smart. Especially for younger players, that really gave them a lot of self- confidence. And the best example of that is Jon Finkel.” Finkel, now a successful hedge-fund manager, says simply: “I would have been a very different person without it.”  

IN NOVEMBER 2011, Jon Finkel was given a sickening jolt – a reminder of how life had been before he had discovered Magic. For one reason or another, the usually compulsive email-checker had gone a few hours without looking at his inbox. Upon getting home from work and flicking on his phone, he was confused by a deluge of mails from friends alerting him to an article that had been posted on design and technology blog Gizmodo by a woman named Alyssa Bereznak. A dreadful sensation of violation gripped Finkel as he logged on to check out what she had written.  

In a spectacularly cynical diatribe, Bereznak had detailed a series of dates she had gone on with Finkel (whom she identified by name), having met him via the online dating portal OKCupid. Though the dates may have not been hugely significant to Finkel, they were nonetheless private – and here they were being splashed across the internet, in an article its author proudly trumpeted as ‘shallow’. In it, she detailed her horror at discovering that her date was not only a Magic player but also a previous World Champion. How could he be so surreptitious to have left the information off his dating profile, to have ‘infiltrated’ his way into dates with herself and other women, she wondered. Just like you’re obligated to mention you’re divorced or have a kid in your online profile, shouldn’t someone also be required to disclose any indisputably geeky world championship titles? she wrote, before blathering, Mothers, warn your daughters! It was bullying dressed up as hard-nosed wit – and what is more, an exploitative attempt to piggyback on Finkel’s reputation, at which she expressed horror, to embellish her own. Gizmodo’s somewhat geeky audience responded with a flood of comments (the story was even picked up by other news outlets, including Forbes, the Washington Post and CBS). And, while some of those tipped over into angry attacks, the outpouring of support for Finkel was huge. Where once everyone had joined in with the school bullies raining blows on the boy, they rallied to the man’s side in a moment that showed just how much the world – and Finkel – had changed in Magic’s lifetime. Playboy’s Playmate of the Year Sarah Jean Underwood even tried to get Finkel to go on a televised date with her – an invitation the Magic champ politely refused.  

Finkel is admirably sanguine about the episode today, pointing out it could have been far worse. However his achievements might have been ridiculed by Bereznak, they turned him into someone far better-equipped to handle the finger-pointing and name-calling life is wont to doll out. “There was a point in my mid- to late-twenties when I realised I hadn’t really thought anything bad about myself for a long time,” says the man who at school had struggled to compile a list of reasons not to end his own life. “I’m kind of disconnected from my core ego now and if something goes badly, it doesn’t impact on how I feel about myself anymore. If someone had written about me like that when I was a teenager or in my early twenties, it would have felt much, much worse.” To boot, the sympathetic postings had been a powerful reminder of the strength of the Magic community and his place within it. A World Champ at something a striving and vacuous blogger found irredeemably nerdy, he may well be, but says Finkel, “I can’t think of another community I’d rather be a part of.”  

Today, both he and Budde are again part of the Magic community, following their inductions into the Hall of Fame and the lifetime Pro Tour invites that go with it. And, although a new generation of pros with more time to practise and more to prove might be giving them a run for their money, both have top-eighted multiple Pro Tours since their return. Finkel even won Pro Tour Kuala Lumpur in 2008, with the same kind of nonchalant excellence that forged his legend, becoming the first Hall of Famer to win a Pro Tour upon his return. The rivalry between the two has given way to a friendship which has even seen the two playtest together before big events. Nowadays, they are two guys with a glorious Magic past between them; one that has earned them. membership to their own exclusive club: the very best there ever was.