A History Lesson: Lucky Seven
Monday, May 6, 2002
I am borrowing a nostalgia page from J. Gary Wise here. I was going to write this article eventually, but talking to Gary and especially John Shuler has forced me to move this article up in the queue. Anyway, it's topical.
Recently there has been a lot of talk about John Rizzo's departure on another web site. I wrote a response, which you don't need to read in order to appreciate this article, which prompted Gary to respond to me. Who, Gary asked, are these mysterious seven foundational writers from whom Magic writing on the internet emerged?
Well I'll tell you.
The writers I will talk about today had a consistency that matched their innovation. They weren't one-deck wonders or sometime contributors. They gave us a language.
But first you have to read this disclaimer. If you are a great internet writer and you are not on this list, please don't be offended. This isn't a list of the Seven Greatest Writers of All Time. It's not a list of the Seven Smartest Deck Designers, either. This is a list of the foundational writers in whom internet Magic writing has its roots. Few of these writers play seriously any more, and of those, their output as Magic writers is today much reduced. If you haven't even heard of some of the people on this list, it may be because you are too Magically young to know about them. These writers are old school. They are ancient school. They are great. They are the folks on whose shoulders the most influential Magic writers on the internet today - the Brian Kiblers, the Mike Bregolis, the Seth Burns - stand. There is even a generation slightly less old, a group who took the hand-off and continued to innovate both as writers and players - guys like Sol Malka and Zvi Mowshowitz - but they were not quite as old school as the fellows. If you long for the serious strategic attitude that Randy Buehler brought to his Pro Tour-Rome tournament report, it is because two guys on this list showed him where to start. If you mark out for the inside look at Magic culture that is taught to you by J. Gary Wise, it's because he is looking back lovingly at the work of someone else on this list. If you even know about the time that Sideboard publisher Jeff Donais stalked, tackled, and then punched out an undesirable who stole his brother WotC R&D member Mike's Lightning Bolt collection at a PTQ - AND THEN WENT ON TO QUALIFY IN SAID PTQ - it is because of the groundwork laid by yet another player on this list.
There are other amazing writers in our community. There are even other writers - very nearly as old - who gave out deck lists and went on to influential positions in the Magic community, as strategy writers, PT judges, or vocal members of the MiseTings discussion boards. But the writers I will talk about today had a consistency that matched their innovation. They weren't one-deck wonders or sometime contributors. They gave us a language (or showed us how to create our own), went on to write our Bibles, to put them on well-organized shelves, and show us how to turn 2-power creatures sideways. They are the Founding Fathers and the Torchbearers. They are listed, following, in alphabetical order.
You may know of Baxter from a couple of PT Top 8s and a successful U.S. National Team. You may have heard rumors of his table-shuffling skills on The Boat. What you probably don't know is that before the information age, Baxter was information.
Players have recently done a lot of complaining about the Brainburst Premium service, but half a decade ago, if you wanted information about Magic, you really, really, had to pay for it. While the traffic on the newsgroups was a thing of beauty (especially given the work of some other players on this list), things like The Sideboard's coverage of events half a world away were totally unheard of. If you wanted to know what the Top 8 deck lists from the last PT were, there were no Archives to click.
Baxter gave players information with books like Deep Magic and The Tables of Magic. In the mid-90's, players were hungry for deck lists; Baxter gave them lists both successful and speculative. In an age before the explosion of Magic websites and the proliferation of "net" deck lists, Baxter's books were valuable reference material both for deck ideas and for dummy decks against which to test one's own designs.
More than by just distributing lists, Baxter was innovative in other ways. He had perfected deck and metagame disinformation years before the idea had occurred to writers like Sean McKeown and Adrian Sullivan. He would fudge numbers on some decks and add random Prodigal Sorcerers to others. While Baxter was providing an important service, he was also making his readers work for their information, and test for optimal builds.
Though he was a lot less active on the internet than any of the rest of our Founding Fathers, Baxter's influence dating back to the pre-information age is felt today still.
The essential Baxter list:
Good Stuff (1996 Pro Tour-New York Top 8)
Side note: In a stroke of Odyssey block irony, this deck is close to being playable in Standard... Ernie and the Vamp are back! In fact, there are actually better versions of Barbed Sextant and Order of the Ebon Hand these days. Just a thought.
I will address first only his tournament reports, which were generally bawdy, sometimes had a measure of strategic value (but not always), constantly talked trash, but more than anything else, showed Hacker's readers that, for him, Magic - even PTQ Magic - was a social outlet. His team, the Hitmen (who had an even bawdier name before), was a small four-man group whose consistent PT success that was the envy of everyone. They loved each other's company. What they played may have been in Vegas or on the golf course, but the Hitmen played together all the time. Magic-wise, they also happened to be innovators of Limited play, and had strategies and skills that no one else on the planet could even approach. They won constantly. They baffled onlookers by picking tiny white creatures over red x-spells.
Then they told you why they did it.
The Hitmen in the mid-90s, with Hacker as their public voice, didn't need to hoard tech. They told everyone what they were about and then beat them anyway. This was doubly ironic because if you read Hacker's tournament reports, it was painfully obvious that they would rather gamble, go to clubs, and make fun of the "other" dominant California team, Pacific Coast Legends, than actually prepare for Pro Tours. If you wanted articles that showed "a life outside of Magic", then Hacker's were among the best.
But sometimes his reports were also full of technology goodness!
It is baffling how much smarter at Magic you could become by reading one of Brian's posts. He would tell you what colors to draft, what classes of spells to put in your deck, how many lands to play, and how strenuously you should be pushing your mana curve. He beat the crap out of everyone with Erg Raiders and Mtenda Herders, and it still took even other Pro Tour players months to catch up to him and his teammates.
Meanwhile, Bui, Hacker, Yoo, and Zila racked up PT Top 16s and Top 8s left and right. Hacker himself went on a stretch of PTQs (Pros could play in PTQs back then) where he made something like five straight Top 8s with two of them being wins.
Then he would write a tournament report about winning, and incidentally invent things like the Death Pool and Props and Slops.
If there is any criticism you can make for his writing, it is that as a then-English major, you would think Hacker would have a stronger grasp of grammar and spelling. Reading Hacker was WORK. The tech was there, the foundation for Magic lingo was there, but unlike some writers, who spell out exactly what they want you to know, Hacker made you stretch to "get" it. If he could come off at times like a teenage ghetto slang-slinger, the maturity he showed when dealing with sensitive issues, the specificity of his arguments on difficult topics, and his overall charisma more than counterbalanced... if only you were willing to look.
And besides that, he invented the beatdown.
I once asked David Price about the fact that he played a Bad Moon/Necropotence deck way back at 1996 PT-New York, but that Hacker was getting all the credit after smashing the Swiss at PT-Dallas. "It's okay," said Dave. "I think you'll agree that Brian did a better job."
Besides the "better job," Brian made sure that his readers would learn to beat down as well. As just one example, Hacker's demonstration of deck redundancy theory via the Dallas black deck is the most important contribution to aggressive decks since Jay Schneider's discovery of the mana curve.
But even entertaining tournament reports, open sharing of discoveries, inventing props and slops, and beating Tiger Woods at a game of golf do not cover the breadth of his lasting contributions to Magic. If you love the culture surrounding this great game, Brian Hacker did a long way to pave the way to why. I have no choice but to someday write a longer piece devoted just to him.
Though I would have picked something different to represent what Hacker's work meant to me, because he spurred me into writing this now, I will leave you with J. Gary Wise's favorite Magic article of all time...
The essential Hacker piece:
At this point, Rob Hahn is probably best known as the co-founder and onetime CEO of Psylum, Inc. (the company that took over The Dojo in 1998), but for our purposes he is merely the granddaddy of all Magic strategy writing on the internet. Merely.
What he did... was to show an emerging group of players that a smart guy, with a good deck, who was willing to share his ideas with the rest of the world, could also make it to the Pro Tour.
"Schools of Magic" was more than an exhaustive look at Magic archetypes and strategies. It was more than a rare news report, teaching players from around the globe the tricks and tech that were being developed in the strange lands of "Pro Tour" and "Neutral Ground"... "Schools of Magic" was a Constitution, a living document, something that was written and re-written when it was no longer true. It was a primer that taught players the very fundamentals of the game on a competitive level. Like all the best Magic articles, it was full of things that were deemed obvious to the best players - but that they had not yet properly put into words - simultaneously opening the eyes of everyone else.
It was our first, and most important, book of language. "Schools of Magic" taught us the words that we needed to understand the game if we wanted to win, if we just wanted to appreciate the game on a deeper level. Have you ever heard the term "card advantage"? Have you ever planned on using early-game "disruption" to beat a "control" player with your aggressive deck?
You can thank Rob Hahn.
While Rob didn't himself come up with the concepts that made "Schools of Magic" great, like Hacker, he brought those concepts to the masses.
What Rob did himself create - which was equally as great, if often forgotten by even those whose lives it touched - is probably the most important single tournament report to be written after the invention of the form.
Rob had already made a name for himself as a brilliant wordsmith and organizer of ideas about Magic. What he did before the first PT-LA with this tournament report was to show an emerging group of players that a smart guy, with a good deck, who was willing to share his ideas with the rest of the world, could also make it to the Pro Tour.
The essential Hahn Report:
This document, much less famous than "Schools of Magic", was a rallying cry for players interested in sharing information, especially those who had not yet made it to the Tour. It is the fundamental reason why people like edt, Worth Wollpert, and myself went on to not just play Magic, but to tell our stories along the way.
Frank Kusumoto "The Sensei"
If all I could do for you was re-hash things you already know, for example to say that Frank founded The Dojo (in his days, The Magic Dojo), then you probably wouldn't be reading me. And while you could make the argument that building an information organizational structure that was invented for, and implemented by, U.S. Military Intelligence - but was simultaneously applied to a man's hobby through strenuous hours spent on HTML code - can be called "influential writing", I will not make that argument here.
Frank Kusumoto's place in Magic history, certainly internet Magic history, is well known. At one time, he reached more people interested in Magic than any other single source, was more powerful at influencing how people played than the DCI. He made players like edt, Zvi Mowshowitz, and Jamie Wakefield famous, gave them credibility in the mainstream, long before any one of them (and I do mean "one"), had any real Magic success on the competitive level.
He announced The Dojo with this rather unassuming post to rec.trading-cards.magic.strategy...
Just a note to let the UseNet group know
that I have opened a website archiving
my old material, along with some updates at:
Current compilations include, Necro, Sligh,
WW, Prison, Weissman's "TheDeck", and
ProsBloom. Expect more to follow soon...
Comments and suggestions welcomed and
...and went on to become a legend for that.
But Frank was also an exceedingly influential writer himself.
Working from Rob Hahn's model, Frank wrote to my knowledge only two Magic articles of any real note. One of them was "STRATEGY: Sligh decks (History and Theory)", which happens to be one of the three or four most influential articles of all time.
"STRATEGY: Sligh decks (History and Theory)" was read by one edt, immediately prior to Pro Tour-Dallas. Said hat-eating dinosaur gave a modified Sligh deck to his then-protégé Patrick Chapin, who went on to score a Junior Pro Tour Top 8 with the deck... and begin the age of Sligh. It was in Dallas format Standard that Dave Price began his legend, it was on the work of Jay Schneider that all these successes began, but it was Frank's little information collection that got the Ball Lightning rolling in a truly meaningful way.
The essential Kusumoto article:
He invented the tournament report.
While one could argue (wrongly, if one's criteria involves either "entertainment value" or "writing skill") that others subsequently did it better, you really cannot get around the fact that Shuler did it first.
Given the fact that the tournament report was at one point the most popular choice for Magic expression outside of the deck list, and was the form on which some of the greatest writers in the history of the game, including Randy Buehler, Sol Malka, and Jamie Wakefield, cut their teeth, I think that it is fairly obvious how innovative and important John's contribution is.
Unlike most of the writers on this list, John is also still actively playing, and sometimes writes humor or opinion pieces for a variety of web sites. Though his efforts in Magic writing show any number of moving, significant, or just hilarious pieces, including the Ode to Pyroblast and his controversial 2001 PT-NY report, Shuler may be best loved (or if you are Kyle Rose, most hated) for this:
The essential Shuler report:
Eric Taylor (edt)
One of the most prolific writers in the history of the game, edt is also known for any number of other qualities. He never holds back tech, and has even been known to "borrow" it from his friends in order to post it to thousands of readers the next day. He speaks in absolutes, but backs them up with statistics, evidence, and the writings of his peers; edt emphasizes what he thinks really matters in Magic strategy, and is one of the few people who actually understood what made the greatest deck designer of all time (now retired) tick. He is a quite a character, and will just as likely eat his hat or not.
Hat-eating mastermind, Eric Taylor
Unlike the previous five players on this list, edt is more of a Torchbearer than a true innovator. That being said, he nevertheless has been posting Magic articles longer than most people have been playing; the writing quality of those articles is matched by only a half dozen other players, and he has been recognized because of that. When, last year, there was quite a commotion about John Rizzo being chosen by Ccgprime.com as Magic's finest writer, few if any, remembered that our best writer had already been selected, many years earlier, by another site.
In 1998, competing against a field where Magic articles were both more plentiful and better written than they largely are today, edt was chosen by The Magic Dojo editor Frank Kusumoto as the game's best writer. In those early days of Magic web sites, edt and his contemporaries - some of whom are on this list, but also include names like Johns, Pikula, Poulter, Price, Schneider, Wollpert, and a host of others - frequented newsgroups and traded ideas in a forum that was open, sometimes of very high quality, yet left writers uncompensated but for the valuable information they got in return.
Those days are over, but edt is still churning out high quality articles for the internet Magic community. It is really difficult to pin down what he is all about as a writer, but to celebrate the fact that he is still at it, I am going to select a piece he did here on the Sideboard not so long ago.
The essential edt article:
You've probably heard of him. If you haven't, here are some articles some guy tried to write about some of his Magic philosophies over the last year or so:
Like edt, Wakefield was not so much one of the founding fathers as he was a Torchbearer. I think that his position on this list hinges primarily on two things, the copious volume of work that he created, and the fact that his Magic writing was more about the guy writing the report than the deck he played or the tournament he attended. Jamie wrote pages and pages about running with his dogs, trying to lose weight by giving up SoBe, fixing computers, the local comic shop, and of course, the Lovely Mare. His readers had become so entangled with the minutiae of his everyday, his fear of airplanes, and the fact that he married his onetime babysitter, that Jamie even got away with writing "Magic" articles that included a fantasy about uploading his personality into a virtual video game kingdom to avoid death, and a couple of Asheron's Call adventures that had next to nothing to do with Magic beyond a common fantasy game theme.
He's not so fat.
To me, this sort of writing did not showcase the essential Jamie, nor, really, did his frequent complaints about the plight of the color green. Jamie was obsessed with the technical skill of Pro Tour regulars, and did everything from trying to copy their pace of play, to marking his mistakes per game with a die, in order to improve his own. As famous as he is today for these attitudes, I think that the special something that made Wakefield great was the small tournament report.
Not every tournament is a Pro Tour, or even a PTQ. Jamie loved Magic on a local level, and he would be just as happy to tell you about how he did with his bad g-w deck against the Myers Twins as he would be to complain about Treachery being printed or how he won an improbable playoff with his no-Thawing Glaciers r-w deck, qualifying for PT-Dallas. Jamie was a master of the small tournament report… he made readers forget about the size of the tournament; he showed them that its scale didn't have a 1-to-1 relationship with the size of the story, or how well it was told. Jamie's influence with this contributed to the work of writers like Sol Malka, myself, and literally hundreds of others who churned out local level reports week in and week out.
Jamie is also holds a unique position, even on this list. While everyone else defaulted on by doing something either first or extremely prolifically, Jamie was put onto this list by the love of his readership. While you may have never heard of some of the players on this list, or you learned something new about one or more of them, I'm sure that long before you got to this place in this article, you assumed the King of the Fatties would be on it. And that says something.
So while I've spent all this time talking about the less-talked about aspects of Jamie, I really have no choice in the matter of picking an article to represent him, do I? When the deck involves giant green creatures and the report involves qualifying for the Pro Tour, there's really only one "essential Wakefield article":
That's it. Lesson over. Hugs and kisses.