Interview: Chris Pikula Part 1
Wednesday, June 19, 2002
Chris Pikula is of a dying breed within Magic. The game is slowly approaching its tenth year in existence, and many of the first competitive players have faded away. Names like Mark Justice, George Baxter and Terry Borer mean very little to the current Magic community, and are only remembered by the old veterans. Pikula is one of these veterans, yet it seems that the demands of "real life" have put a strain on his Magic career, and may force him to become yet another one of those faded names. Yet, Pikula's reputation won't allow him to be forgotten. He is widely regarded as one of the funniest players on the Pro Tour, and has a talent for telling all sorts of stories. At any given major event, if you see a crowd gathered, it may just be a group of people being entertained by one of Pikula's anecdotes.
But how does Chris feel Magic has changed since his heyday? Is it possible to juggle a job and a marriage with the Pro Tour? I sat down with Chris at U.S. Nationals between rounds during Day 2 to get his thoughts.
Wachter: How did you first get into Magic?
Pikula: My friends from high school, we did lots of gaming like Dungeons & Dragons, Battletech and video games. One of them went to a LARP and came back with these cards, and it was Magic.
Wachter: What intrigued you about it?
Pikula: I don't know. I always liked all games and I was kind of a fantasy geek, so it was a combination of the two.
Wachter: Was there something specific about the game's mechanics that you liked?
Pikula: I don't know. I don't think that was why... at first I just liked it because it was different, and it was unlike any other game I'd seen. It kind of appealed to my geeky love of Elves and such. I actually hate Elves but you know, Dwarves. I wouldn't say anything specific about the game's mechanics or the way the game is played. Like I had no idea whether or not the game was a good... I think it was fun at first. You know, a lot of games are fun at first, and then you realize they're not very good games. Settlers of Catan is a lot like that. It's a lot of fun, but after you play it for a whole weekend, eventually people are choking each other over die rolls, and you realize "Hey this game really isn't that good. It's just fun." So I don't think I understood whether or not Magic was a good game, or good for competition at first, it was just fun to play. Now I like it because... although I'm not as much as I was three years ago, I'm still very much a gamer. It is good for competition, it is good for tournaments, but that's not initially what drew me to it.
Wachter: At what point did you decide to play more competitively?
Pikula: The first time we heard there was a tournament, we never knew about this. We had played...
Wachter: By "we" you mean?
Pikula: Me and my friends from high school. When I went home summer of my sophomore year of college I went back to Indiana and all my friends from high school started playing. We actually held our own tournament before we ever went to a tournament. There were like fourteen of us who played, we had a huge number of us who played, and we had the tournament at a friend of mine's house. Which I won with my monoblack Nightmare deck, defeating the Meekstone deck by just never attacking until my Nightmares were big enough to kill him in one turn! The first time we heard there was a tournament at the store in Illinois we were like "Wow, a tournament! Let's go to that!" That gave us a taste for it. Immediately we wanted to do tournaments. I got really lucky with the first tournament because somehow I really liked Kird Ape, and Kird Ape also ended up being really good. So luckily, I liked good cards off the bat even though I didn't really realize why they were good.
Then I went back to Cornell, and Cornell had a lot of people with Type 1 cards and stuff, which I had never really even seen. Well, they weren't Type 1 cards back then, but you know what I mean. It was like "Sinkhole? What's Sinkhole? What's a Mox?" So I saw all these guys had these cards and I wanted to be able to compete with them but I didn't have the cards, so I was forced to try to build good decks out of cheap cards. I couldn't get the older cards, even though a Mox then was like $25 that seemed ridiculous to me back then. So I got pretty competitive very quickly.
Wachter: At Cornell was Dave Price one of those Type 1 guys?
Pikula: No, Dave Price was actually a little behind me. When I had Type 1 cards, Dave Price still didn't really have...
Wachter: So you played before he did?
Pikula: I don't know if I actually started before him, but I was definitely a better competitive Magic player before he was.
Wachter: How did you end up rooming together?
Pikula: We kind of met through Magic just briefly, but then we also realized we had a couple of mutual friends.
Wachter: What was it like rooming with Dave Price?
Pikula: It was good. There was a lot of sitting on the couch, watching Conan the Barbarian and playing Magic.
Wachter: Conan the Barbarian?
Pikula: We used to watch Conan the Barbarian almost every day.
Pikula: It's a great movie! A great, great movie.
Wachter: Why is it a great movie?
Pikula: "Crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentations of the women!" That's a great movie! The thing that we loved about Conan the most was when Conan rescues Subotai from the desert; he cuts him loose and feeds him, because Subotai is going to get attacked by wolves at night. He's been chained up for being a thief. And then him and Conan just kind of pack up their stuff and run from town to town. Me and Dave Price had a dream of just running from city to city for Magic tournaments. It never actually came true.
Wachter: How did Deadguy start?
Pikula: Me, Dave Price, and Dave Bartholow... and Tony Tsai, who came a little bit later... originally it was me, Dave, Dave Bartholow and Bob Klein, who was an old school Cornell Magic player. He used to be the number one ranked Standard player in the world, and then he moved to Tennessee. He actually single-handedly ruined Magic in Tennessee by winning every single tournament for a year, and every one quit. We used to go to the New York Magic tournaments, which were run by Gray Matter, which is somewhat connected to Neutral Ground. They used to have $1000 tournaments at the New Yorker Hotel once a month. We started going to those, and there's this band Deadguy, that's a hardcore band, that we really liked. So we had all these Deadguy t-shirts, and we started wearing them to Magic tournaments all the time, and someone just started calling us "Deadguy" and that's how it started. I don't remember the exact chain of events, but somehow we became Team Deadguy. We first used the name at an Origins team tournament back in 1995 or '96.
Wachter: Is Deadguy still active at all?
Pikula: Most of us still play Magic, but it's not the same as it used to be.
Wachter: You and the rest of Deadguy have always had an anti-cheating stance, even when cheating was more common years back. Why?
Pikula: I don't know. I guess it's because we don't care about money, and we don't care about...we all played Magic because we wanted to be good at the game, we wanted to win, we wanted to beat someone. A lot of people would win $5000 and be like "Yeah I won $5000!" and it was cool because I was in college and a lot of us didn't have that much money, but none of use really cared about the money. We wanted to win. There was no reason for us to cheat, because we got no pleasure out of winning through cheating. Then it's just stolen money. We view it very much as stealing. If you cheat someone and that person doesn't win money because of you, you basically stole from that person. I think any other way to look at it is just some sort of justification. Obviously there are different levels of cheating, and not all cheating is the same. There are things someone can do that can be worse. I agree that there are levels, and there are things you can do where someone will call it cheating, and someone will say it's not and all that. Still, in most cases, cheating is just stealing money from some other Magic player, or stealing glory. I don't understand it, and I don't understand why people stand for it at all.
Wachter: You also have a reputation for not pulling any punches, and calling people out as cheaters...
If no one is gonna say something, we'll say something.
Pikula: Well yeah, people especially three or four years ago, you would be constantly approached by people who would go "I just saw so-and-so cheat." "Well, did you tell a judge?" "No, I don't want to get involved." That just happened over and over again, and it was ridiculous. We just got sick of it and were like "If no one is gonna say something, we'll say something." Of course no one really believes you. It's pretty funny that most of the people, well not most, but many of the people who we would claim to be cheaters and would deny it, would end up getting banned at some point. In most cases, the DCI at least agrees with us that we were right, that these people are at least in some cases cheating.
Wachter: So do you feel that you're providing a service to the community by doing that? Sort of a "crusader against all that is wrong"?
Pikula: I would think so, but not really. We caught as much flack for doing it as we got praise for doing it.
Wachter: Do you think that the cheating problem has gotten better over the years?
Pikula: Right now it's hard for me to tell because I'm not as entrenched in the Pro Tour culture as I once was. A lot of the top players now are younger than me and a lot of the Europeans who I don't really know very well at all are some of the better players now. So now that I don't know the players who are doing well, it's hard for me to tell. Also I don't play in that many of the tournaments, and I'm out of contention much earlier on average now. I don't know. It feels like it's better now because the DCI is doing a better job, but I'm not certain that it's better. It could just look better.
Wachter: There are a few specific players you have problems with, like Mike Long. What sort of things about his personality or others irritates you?
Pikula: There's a few players over the years - Mike Long, John Chinnock, people who I think give off a insincere aura of friendliness to everyone around them, because they're trying to manipulate people into liking them so that they can screw them later, basically. If you ask people about those kinds of players, they've been doing it their whole lives, and I really have a problem with people who are manipulative. I mean they're thieves, I think cheating is stealing money.
Pikula in the background of Long vs. Humphreys
Wachter: You were saying that you guys (Deadguy) were more about playing than the money. Do you think there's a separation between players who are in it for the money and players who are in it for the fun? Maybe there's a balance between the two?
Pikula: What do you mean by separation? As in "These people play for money, these people play for fun?"
Pikula: No, I don't think it's clear at all. Some of the players who were originally in it for fun are making enough money off it now that's it's kind of for the money, because it's almost all they do. In a sense it's for the money, but that's not why they started. I don't think that's why anyone started, but there are some people whose attitude seems to indicate that they care more about the money than a lot of players do.
Tomorrow, Chris talks about his experience at The World Series of Poker, the Magic Invitational, Meddling Mage, and trying to stay on the Pro Tour while having a job.