he United States Magic Championships is the longest-running Premier Event in the history of Organized Play. The tournament reaches back all the way to 1994—preceding the very first World Championships—and was originally held at the Origins gaming convention in San Jose, California (before finally settling down in Columbus, Origins was rather nomadic). Bo Bell was the very first person to hoist the trophy, playing a deck that featured cards likely to be played in the Vintage and Legacy Champs taking place this weekend.
Back then there was no Standard or Limited; there was just Magic. The rules for deck construction that are so familiar to us now had just been introduced earlier that year, as had the Banned & Restricted lists that has attempted to keep the degeneracy of Eternal formats in check. Fortunately for the first ever Magic Champion, cards from the hard-to-find Magic expansions were not allowed as he explained in an interview about his deck:
"Now at the Nationals that year they were only allowing Alpha / Beta / Unlimited and Revised. No expansions. This saved me. I had just about every restricted card you could think of in it. After removing them, I put in the Control's, the Assassins and Queens (oh... and the 1 Phantom Monster; I was scrambling for ANYTHING to go in). And it's funny... the Phantom Monster won me the third game of the Finals (we only played a best of 3). The creature control stuff I added helped a lot (back then decks were nothing but creature threats), so in hindsight, they weren't that bad. The Forcefield also helped; you wouldn't believe the amount of Shivan's and Fat Moti's that came at me. Most of what I saw there was burn, counter-burn, and fat critter decks. In the Finals my opponent played a WOrb, white-black weenie deck. All of the decks using Chaos Orbs somehow lost in the opening rounds."
Winner, US National Championship 1994
The following year introduced the idea of National teams, and the first one was led by none other than Mark Justice, with the rest of the squad rounded out by Henry Stern, Mike Long, and Pete Leiher. Magic creator Richard Garfield wrote an impassioned plea for Pro Tour Hall of Fame voters to put Justice on their ballots, calling him the player all other players were measured against. If you have been around the game as long as I have, he was certainly the first big name player you ever heard of, and his arrival at the very first Pro Tour was due in no small part to his US Nationals win. He led the US National team to victory at Worlds that year, and finishing 3rd in the individual leg of Worlds as well that year.
That second National Championships was where the tournament started to resemble the split format that was long the hallmark of the Nationals but extended to the Pro Tour as well over the past few seasons. Players had to fight out rounds of Sealed Deck competition before they could play the newly created Type II format—what would eventually become known as Standard. Interestingly, players were able to switch their Constructed decks in between rounds, and Justice played a black-red deck that touched blue and then audibled—along with Stern—to a metagamed anti-black deck with Whirling Dervishes and Lifeforces for the double elimination bracket on Sunday. He lost his first round but fought back to defeat Henry Stern in the finals.
"Losing my first game, I had come so far to get to that final match," said Justice in a Mark Rosewater article for The Duelist. "I just think at that point whatever forces [there were] were on my side. Henry played some great games, but that final match just went my way."
Justice set a high bar for National Champions, and the team—which featured three of the game's earliest stars—established the United States as a Magic powerhouse. US National teams throughout history would go on to showcase some of the game's biggest names from the game's home country. Check out some of these squads:
During the 1998-99 season, Kyle Rose became the US Champ with his trademark White Weenie deck. Kyle was one of the first players to exploit the words "at end of turn" on a card when he played Waylay in his Constructed deck. The card was a blowout in Limited but was not believed to have much Constructed application, since the three tokens did not have haste. As the legend goes, Kyle saw someone cast the card after "end of turn" effects had resolved in a Limited match—and thus get to keep their Knights until the next turn's end step—and adapted his Constructed deck for the white Ball Lightning.
Kyle Rose's Waylay Weenie
Winner, U.S. National Championship 1999
Joining him on the team were one-day Pro Tour Hall of Famer Zvi Mowshowitz—who played the fiendish Yawgmoth's Bargain deck—Charles Kornblith, and John Hunka. Brian Selden and Pro Tour Hall of Famer Dave Humpherys also made the Top 8. While looking over Hall of Fame resumes over the past month I was shocked to see that Kyle Rose had fallen off the ballot. He has four Pro Tour Top 8s including a win, won the US National Championships, won the team competition, and had a Grand Prix win to boot. The team won the finals of the World Team Championships over a German team led by Marco Blume, who famously played a Covetous Dragon with no artifacts in play in the finals.
The following year saw future Pro Tour Hall of Famer Jon Finkel win the title with Napster—perhaps the most published deck in Magic history thanks to our own Top Decks' Michael J. Flores's hand in creating it—to lead a team that also included Frank Hernandez, Aaron Forsythe, and Chris Benafel.
Jon Finkel's Napster
Winner, US National Championship 2000
It was an insane season for Finkel, who narrowly missed a sweep of all the hardware at Worlds that year. He went on to win Worlds over Bob Maher, led the National team to victory over a Canadian squad led by Ryan Fuller, and finished second in the Player of the Year race to Maher.
The Top 8 of Nationals in 2003 is chock-full of Hall of Famers with the likes of Jon Finkel, Brian Kibler, and Mike Turian all falling by the wayside in the quarterfinals—and, oh by the way, Neil Reeves was not too shabby either. Despite that shedding of star power, the team still featured Justin Gary and Gabe Walls when the dust settled. The team would be led by an unlikely champion in Joshua Wagener. It was Justin's second berth on a National team, and he made the most of the opportunity to come out on top at Worlds in Berlin.
Neil Reeves made it onto a National team two years later, joining Jon Sonne as wingmen to captain Antonino De Rosa, who won the tournament with a nearly mono-blue Urzatron deck that was the breakout deck of the weekend.
Jon Sonne, Antonino De Rosa, and Neil Reeves
Antonino De Rosa's Mono-Blue Urzatron
Winner, US Nationals 2005
De Rosa's squad made it as far as the finals at Worlds, but ran into the Japanese juggernaut. That was the breakout season for Japan, whose players won both the individual competition and the team event. It was also the first of a series of Player of the Year wins for Japan that would continue into the next decade until Brad Nelson—eventually—took the title for this past season.
In 2006 the team ended up being a trio of relatively unknown players who are hardly worth mentioning.
Luis Scott-Vargas, after breaking through onto the national team the previous year (Spoiler alert: you should have clicked on the link above!) returned to the Sunday stage to win the 2007 National title and lead a team with a then-unknown Michael Jacob, along with Thomas Drake and Michael Bennett.
Michael Jacob, Thomas Drake, Michael Bennett, and Luis Scott-Vargas
As you might have noticed, the team rosters have varied between three and four players. As Worlds teams formats have varied over the years, so has the number of members on a national team.
It was back to the three-player teams in 2008 and it was back-to-back team berths for Michael Jacob, who ended up winning that year and captaining a team with Paul Cheon and Sam Black. They would go on to win the Team Championships at Worlds in Memphis before two-time National team member Paul Cheon retired to a tropical paradise.
The Michael Jacob–led team was also the last US team to win the Team Championship at Worlds—something this year's squad will certainly be hoping to remedy. What will the membership of that squad be? Make sure to tune into the coverage all weekend as we bring you the sights and stories of the field being whittled down to the last three players standing. If you are jonesing to see some decks that more closely resembling the one Bo Bell played at the very first Nationals, there will also be coverage of the Vintage and Legacy Champs interspersed throughout—Phantom Monsters almost certainly not included!
Thinking back on the impressive history of US national teams, I got to wondering about the best national teams of all time, in any country, and put the question to my Facebook and Twitter (@top8games) audience for their feedback. It is hard to imagine that a team with Mark Justice, Jon Finkel, Zvi Mowshowitz, or Luis Scott-Vargas is not one of the best of all time, but even those titans of the game—contrary to tall tales told around Magic campfires—can only play one match at a time, and there are a handful of teams that were the equivalent of the 1927 Yankees Murderer's Row of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Bob Meusel.
Tiago Chan suggested that the best teams of all time hailed from the Netherlands with Tom van de Logt, Noah Boeken, and Hall of Famer Kamiel Cornelissen in 2002; Jeroen Remie, Julien Nuijten, and Rogier Maaten in 2004; or the World Team Champions from 2006, Robert van Medevoort, Julien Nuijten, and Kamiel Cornelissen. It is hard to go wrong with any of those lineups, which all feature at least two Pro Tour winners.
Pro Tour New York 99-00 winner Sigurd Eskeland suggested his own Norwegian National team from Worlds 2000 that included himself, Hall of Famer Nicolai Herzog, and Eivind Nitter as a team with three Pro Tour winners and two European Championships. The team also included Bjørn Petter Joccumsen, who had a handful of strong finishes at team Pro Tours.
Tsuyoshi Fujita, Kenji Tsumura, Shuhei Nakamura
Christian Calcano seconded the Netherlands team from 2002 before "remembering" the 2004 season, which featured a French team with Hall of Famers Gab Nassif and Olivier Ruel captained by Rookie of the Year Alexandre Peset. As hard as it is to imagine, that is not the best team from Worlds that year—by Nassif's own admission. By the time Hall of Fame voting is over next year, I fully expect every member of the 2004 Japanese National team to be member of the Pro Tour Hall of Fame. Tsuyoshi Fujita is already inducted, and Shuhei Nakamura has been a widely held favorite for this year's class. Their third member becomes eligible for the Hall next season: a then completely unknown Kenji Tsumura.
"I thought I had a shot with Oli and Alex until I saw the '04 Japan lineup," admitted Nassif via Facebook.
I mention this exercise in feedback because Friday of next week will, unusually, be the beginning of Feedback Week here on DailyMTG.com, and I want to give you a chance to interact here in my column. It comes in two (and a half) parts:
After the US Nationals are over on Sunday, I will be interviewing the winner. Send me a question you would like to ask of the newly crowned Champ, and I will pick a handful of submissions and include them in the interview for next week's column.
Additionally, you can submit questions for me to answer about whatever you want—or, better yet, you can tell me what Magic players you would like to have answer a question and I will do my best to get that answer for you. If you want to know what Jon Finkel's favorite movie is or Zvi Mowshowitz's all-time list of mathematical proofs, I will do my best to get the answers for you.