hen I was a baby-faced 11-year-old I went to the Prophecy Prerelease with some friends, but I didn't feel I was ready to play in the main event. I signed up anyway because I really wanted to get some of the new cards, but I dropped before the first round and just played with my friends all day, tinkering our decks with our newfound cards (one of my friends opened an Avatar of Woe, which gave him a distinct advantage—until I cleverly spent a dollar to buy a playset of Spitting Earths that could destroy his newfound bomb like it was nobody's business).
I decided to get seriously into Magic a few months later, but my friends just weren't interested in the game in the same way that I was. I tried to encourage them to spend more time playing, to think about their plays more, to really understand why they were including each and every card in their decks, to ask better players questions, to play in more tournaments, and to read the Magic Dojo (the original Magic: The Gathering strategy web site, which featured the writings of Zvi Mowshowitz, Mike Flores, Kai Budde and about a bajillion other highly notable Magic players and theorists) and the Sideboard (which would eventually become the magicthegathering.com that we all know and love).
But that just wasn't how they wanted to play Magic. They cared about playing Magic, not about winning at Magic. Because to them, playing was winning. They wanted to joke around and come up with the coolest new decks (and who doesn't?), and they didn't want to play against that "cheap" land destruction deck, or that agonizing Counterspell deck.
It's not that they weren't intelligent—quite the opposite. They were very intelligent people who saw Magic as a fun break from all the other competition in their lives.
But I needed to get good, really good. I wanted to play on the Million Dollar Magic: The Gathering Pro Tour. I wanted to be recognized by people for being one of the best Magic: The Gathering players.
But first I needed to learn how to play well. And that meant playing and reading constantly.
A couple of months later I knew I was ready. Invasion had just come out and I had finished a mere one match short of prizes at the Prerelease, losing two close matches to Crosis, the Purger.
Time to Show Them What's What
I showed up to Neutral Ground on a Tuesday, expecting to clean up at the local draft. But there weren't enough people. There were only four of us looking to draft. I didn't know the other kids who were looking to draft, but they all clearly knew each other. We were all itching to draft, and while they were clearly skeptical about letting me in, they did when they realized no other options were going to materialize.
We decide to do a two-on-two draft with random teams. After the draft we would redraft the rares, with the winning team getting the first two picks.
After the teams were assigned my partner asked me, "You know how to draft, right?"
I had to try my hardest to contain a chuckle. Do I know how to draft? Pffft. These guys have no idea what they're in for. There was the Mercadian Masques / Nemesis / Prophecy draft that I did where I was rare-drafting the entire time but I still went 2-1. There was the "Reject Rare Draft" (a draft tournament with packs made entirely out of rares that people had traded in for raffle tickets) where I finished in the Top 4 out of over 25 people (but I knew I would have won if I had been able to play my first draft deck in the Top 8 instead of redrafting). And there was the draft that I did at the Prerelease where I got mana screwed in the Finals.
"Yeah, I know how to draft," I told him, cracking a slight grin in the process.
I got everything that I could have asked for in the draft. I opened up an Absorb and windmill slammed it down.
"Open something good?" one of my opponents asked, obviously terrified.
"You could say that."
I then got passed an Angel of Mercy, some Galina's Knights and not one, but two Reviving Doses. I opened up a second Angel of Mercy (yes!), got passed a third Reviving Dose (whoa!), a Reviving Vapors (sooo sweet), and some more decent creatures.
In my third pack I counter-drafted a Rith, the Awakener, got passed a Benalish Heralds, two Holy Days (aww yeah), a fourth Reviving Dose (I know, I couldn't believe it myself), and then closed out the draft with some more decent creatures.
I had an awesome blue-white deck with more life gain than my opponents were going to know how to handle.
My teammate and I sat down to build our decks. I was grinning from ear to ear.
"Good deck?" He asked.
"Why don't you tell me?" I said casually, knowing that he was about to be floored.
I laid out my deck and he was completely speechless. There was a stunned look on his face.
"Pretty good, right?" I said. But I already knew the answer. It's awwww—
"It's awful. Absolutely terrible. This might be the worst deck I've ever seen. Why did you say you knew how to draft?"
"I do know how to draft." I was a bit taken aback at this point. Maybe this kid had no idea what he was talking about, but maybe he was on to something.
"Oh really, how many drafts have you done?"
"Five. You've done five whole drafts."
"Counting this one?"
"I can't believe this. Even if you've only done five drafts, why would you go blue-white after you opened Rith, the Awakener and made such a big deal about it?"
"I didn't open Rith, the Awakener. I opened Absorb."
"You first-picked Absorb?" he asked with a look of disgust on his face.
"Of course ... Absorb is awesome. Why do you think everyone wants to trade for it?" My deck might not have been as good as I thought it was, but at least I got him on this point.
"Just because a card is good in Constructed doesn't mean it's good in Limited. In Constructed you get to build your entire deck around the cards that you want. In Limited you don't have anywhere near that much control over what winds up in your deck."
"Oh." I said, completely dejected at this point.
My teammate built my deck for me, and it was, of course, terrible. I just didn't know what I was doing yet. The articles that I had read online had all been about Constructed, so I just didn't know what was going on in Limited yet.
I played my two matches and I got trounced. I was able to win one game thanks to my two Angel of Mercy, but I went home humiliated.
How could I ever show my face at Neutral Ground again? Everyone was going to know that I was a terrible drafter. I was no different from the friends I had started playing with. They could have 0-2ed that four-man draft just as easily as I did, but at least they wouldn't have been embarrassed because they would have at least had a good time playing.
It was time for me to face reality. I sucked, and I was never going to get to play on the Pro Tour. I was never going to play Magic again.
Done with Magic
The next day was Wednesday. I was still never playing Magic again.
The following day was Thursday. Well, maybe .... No. Definitely not playing Magic, ever again.
Then came Friday. Sealed Deck Friday Night Magic at Neutral Ground.
Well ... at least I can't embarrass myself too badly playing Sealed Deck. I'll just leave my life gain spells in my sideboard this time...
Fortunately for me I opened up a pretty darn good Sealed Deck and I was able to waltz my way to the Finals where I was paired against Cary Newburger. Cary was a Pro Tour player and he was one of the nicest guys I had met playing Magic. He was one of the main reasons I decided to take Magic seriously.
Needless to say I was a bit frightened, but I could handle it. I wasn't going to let my nerves get to me. I knew that even if I lost, Cary wasn't going to make me feel bad about myself.
I could do this. I could beat him, or at least put up a good fight. I had good cards, and while I might not be a good drafter, that wouldn't matter here. It was all about what I had and how I played it.
I was ready for the challenge. I was ready to redeem myself. I sat down for my match, ready to battle.
Cary sat down smiling, and said: "Hey Steve, I actually have to get home to take care of something. Would you mind if we drew?"
Holy S#*$, I thought to myself, Cary Newburger wants to draw with me? No way!
Doing my best stay calm I told him "Yeah ... I think I can do that."
"Thanks, Steve. I owe you one."
He owed me one? NO WAY!
I've gotta sound cool, gotta sound cool.
"You owe me a game."
What the hell, Steve? That doesn't sound cool at all. What were you even thinking? "You owe me a game." What does that even mean? Everything that I just gained, I blew with that stupid comment.
"Definitely. You should come by on Monday to draft."
"Cool. I'll see you there," I told him, unable to hide the giant smile that had overtaken my face.
After that FNM I knew that I had what it took to become a good Magic player. I spent all day the next day reading articles about Limited and Constructed. Even though I didn't completely understand why I wanted to do a lot of things, I learned a lot. I became acquainted with what a good mana curve is. I learned about why it's a bad idea to chump-block early. I learned why evasion creatures are important. I learned why life gain is generally bad in Limited. I learned why removal is awesome ....
I studied for the test. And even if I didn't understand most of the material that I was working with, I knew enough to sound competent and to play decently.
That Sunday I rolled up to Neutral Ground to try out my first real Standard deck. A white-blue control deck that I was nearly able to pilot to a Top 8 finish at a 30-person Standard tournament (an as-of-yet unknown Osyp Lebedowicz wound up winning that one). After the tournament I did a draft to help get me ready for the Monday night draft that was fast approaching.
I drafted a lean, mean red-green deck that I went 1-2 with against some pretty good opponents. I made a pretty bad play mistake that caused one of my losses, a play mistake that I knew I wasn't going to repeat.
I was pretty happy with this. I knew I was on my way.
The next day was Monday. The Monday night draft that I had been looking forward to was finally here. And I was ready.
I wasn't ready to 3-0 the draft and get carried away as the hero, but I was ready to put up a good fight and show everyone that I was serious about getting better.
The drafters were Brian David-Marshall (who was at the time the owner of Neutral Ground and who quickly became one of my closest friends), Cary Newburger, Zev Gurwitz, Paul Allison, Mike Flores (who would become my Pro Tour teammate just a couple of years later), and ME!
I drafted a blue-white-green deck that I was pretty happy with. I went 1-2, beating Flores (a result which led to a lot of ribbing from everyone else in the draft) and losing to Zev and Paul.
It was all happening. In the course of a week I went from thinking I was ready to play on the Pro Tour to thinking I was ready to quit Magic to realizing that I loved Magic and that I could get better at it if I worked very hard and I really wanted it.
And I really wanted it.
So I played, and I talked, and I read.
About 300 drafts and three years later I qualified for Pro Tour–Amsterdam, my first Limited Pro Tour.
And that only made me hungrier ....
Pro Tour–Honolulu is this weekend, and I’ll be there feeding my hunger for Magic in both Draft and Block Constructed.