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Interview: Bob Maher Part 1

Tuesday, February 4, 2003

Bob Maher is one of the Pro Tour’s most accomplished and respected veterans. He’s won a Pro Tour, held the Player of the Year title, almost became a World Champion but lost to Jon Finkel in the finals and has plenty of Grand Prix success under his belt. Last year, Maher was handed down a six-month suspension, making him one of the most high-profile players to be benched by the DCI. The situation shocked a lot of people, since Maher has always had a reputation for being an honest player.

It appears that the time off actually invigorated “The Great One”, as he came back and went on a tear, holding the lead in the Player of the Year race before Kai went and won another Pro Tour in Chicago. Still, Maher’s season has been phenomenal. I sat down with Bob at Pro Tour-Chicago while the Top 8 was being played and we discussed his teaming up with Gary Wise and Neil Reeves, being on the first United States National team not to emerge victorious at Worlds, his 1999 Chicago victory, his side of the story with the suspension, the fabled Madison Magic community and many other issues.

Sideboard: How did you first get into Magic?

Maher: I first got into Magic because I tore my rotator cuff in football and my debate teacher at the time knew I was highly competitive. He had learned how to play Magic because he was at GenCon when it was released. Arabian Nights had just come out. He taught me how to play and we had a group of six guys that used to play there. I immediately started looking for tournaments and things like that. I was in the Chicago area’s tournament circuit by the time Legends came out.

Sideboard: So you took a quicker step from casual to tournaments than most.

Maher: As soon as I heard about tournaments, I got interested. My father was always in IT consulting and things like that, so the internet newsgroups, especially back in the beginning, were very big. I knew how to navigate them, so I had a bit of an edge even though information didn’t disseminate on the internet nearly as much as it does today. So I used to follow that and I was as competitive as time would allow me in high school.

Sideboard: What intrigued you about the game? Why did you get interested in it?

Maher: I used to play a lot of chess as a kid; my father taught me how to play. I’ve always been competitive at every game I played and I was really into sports in high school. I played football, I wrestled, I threw shot put and I was highly competitive. I tore my rotator cuff, which put an end to pretty much all of it. Magic was the first thing put in front of me and I basically devoured it.

I’ve always been competitive…

Sideboard: Was there something specific about the game’s mechanics that you liked?

Maher: It wasn’t anything necessarily about the game’s mechanics. In the beginning, I liked the randomness element. In chess, the better player has a much higher percentage chance of winning, just because everything is static. The pieces are always the same; the board always starts the same. A lot of chess is just memorizing openings of games and things like that. With Magic, you have to think a lot more on the fly.

Sideboard: What’s your favorite format and why?

Maher: My favorite format is still Limited. I’ve had a lot more success with Constructed, but I still enjoy Limited. It’s mostly just because in Madison, we can get a very good group of players together and we all improve by drafting with each other. But, it’s still also a lot of fun.

Sideboard: Speaking of which, the Madison area is somewhat fabled within Magic circles. What is it about that community that makes it stand out?

Maher: We were lucky enough to get a very strong group of players there going to school. Back before Magic was even competitive, a bunch of players had put together a very large gaming unit that just always played Magic. Someone has always taken the reigns and made sure… since before I was there, and I moved there in ’96. It had already been going on for a couple of years before I got there. Every Wednesday night in Madison, unless it was Christmas or New Year’s, there’s been gaming. Since ’96, every Wednesday night there have been drafts.

Sideboard: You said you like Limited more, but you’ve had more success in Constructed. Why is that?

Maher: Most of the decks I’ve had success with in Constructed have either abused a function of the game much like Tinker did, or allowed me to take as much of the luck out of the game as I could, with cards like Brainstorms and Enlightened Tutors when I was playing Oath. I think I’ve had more success in Constructed because Constructed, in some formats, will really reward the more experienced player.

Sideboard: What kind of decks do you like to draft?

Maher: I like to draft decks that maneuver around the board and slowly work up to a position where your opponent’s defenses crumble. I don’t necessarily go for all out speed, like a lot of people draft. I’m not just a pure tempo drafter. I usually try to work up to a superior board position.

Sideboard: You started on the Junior Pro Tour. How was that experience beneficial?

It kept my focus away from the money.

Maher: One of the biggest things for me playing in the Junior Pro Tour, to begin with, was actually that at the PTQs, the Swiss was held combined with the adult players. So, I got to play and practice with a lot of people who were more intelligent and more experienced than I was at the time. Even as I moved up into the Master-level events (regular Pro Tour) later on, there were Junior Pro Tours and then the Junior Super Series. As opposed to bringing in people from our own age group to playtest with, we’d always bring in younger kids, because whatever we were teaching them wasn’t getting used against us. So, I actually think starting out in the Juniors was good. It kept my focus away from the money. It was a lot more about the game, because it was scholarships and I also got to play with people who taught me a lot and weren’t holding anything back, because they weren’t worried about playing me. Because, the records you needed to make Top 8 in the Juniors portion of a qualifier were 3-3, so even if I randomly did get paired against one of the older guys… collusion wasn’t legal back then, but I never really played as hard as I could against them, because they were already doing me a favor. So, we played, but they weren’t really worried about it and I wasn’t really worried about it.

Sideboard: How has the Pro Tour changed from when you first started?

Maher: The Pro Tour is a lot more professional now. I think the further it goes towards that, the better. The Pro Tour now with the Masters and everything, it can support a few professional players. It has always worked towards that, but there were professional players in the beginning like Chip Hogan, who in Type 1 claimed to be a professional player. He was living out of a mobile home with his wife and child, driving all over the United States just trying to hustle people to get by. It’s come a long way from that and certainly for the better.

Sideboard: What was it like to be on the first United States team to lose at Worlds? In retrospect you see Bob Maher and Justin Gary on that team, two guys who went on to win Pro Tours and become very accomplished players.

Maher: One of the big things was that we were all pretty young. I was fairly quiet at that point; I wasn’t an outspoken person. There were some strong personalities on the team- Jeff Butz was also a very quiet person. We didn’t necessarily mesh in the Team Sealed event because we all had our own ideas. Justin Gary, at the time, was National Champion and he really felt that he should have been running the deckbuilding. I knew Kyle Bigos before the tournament and Jeff Butz and Kyle - even though Justin was National Champion - they were kind of looking towards me. We just didn’t work together nearly as well as we should have. It was really depressing to be on the first U.S. team that lost. I think actually when we finished the tournament we were seventh and later on it got posted that we were fifth. They kind of pushed us up to the first non-money spot. It was really strange, because when you look at the other side of the bracket that could have been the National team, it would have been Jon Finkel, Nate Clarke, Casey McCarrel and Mario Robania, which would have been unbelievable. It was a very strong Top 8 as it turned out.

It was a big letdown, but it was certainly a learning experience. My parents came out and watched me play. I just learned a lot because I started off 0-4 in that Worlds and I was so disappointed that I walked back to my hotel room and took another shower because I got so destroyed in round 4 that I had fifty minutes to kill. I took a shower and was sitting there on the bed, and I was actually sharing my hotel room with a friend of mine who was in Seattle on business with Wizards and he just sat down and talked to me for a while. If it had been an individual event, I actually probably would have dropped. But, I was so upset and nothing was going my way and it wasn’t because I was necessarily making mistakes. He gave me a pep talk, I came back and 3-0’d the next table. I ended up working my way back up to tenth place. I was in contention with three or four rounds left. Even though the U.S. National Team finish was a big disappointment, I think I grew a lot, as a player, in that tournament. There was a lot of give and take there.

Sideboard: Given that Worlds was in Seattle, was there any backlash from spectators since the United States lost for the first time?

Maher: No. Actually, everyone was really supportive, especially Brian Weissman. He wasn’t actually qualified for the tournament, he was just out there. When I 0-4’d the first table, they were kind of like rallying around us. He sat me down and told me that white-blue was by far the best deck in Mirage-Visions-Weatherlight. People just didn’t understand it and he was explaining to me that if I took a Jolt over an Incinerate early, I’d get rewarded further along in the draft and I needed to look long-term. I wasn’t able to draft white-blue at the last table because it was Rochester and it just didn’t work out, but everyone actually kind of encouraged us and rallied around us. Everyone was really supportive. After it didn’t work out, there wasn’t any backlash, no one said anything to us. It was just apologies.

Sideboard: What are the origins of the Oath deck that you’re famous for?

Oath of Druids
Maher: Ped Bun designed it and some of the Madison guys told me they had played against it on the qualifier circuit. I went to Grand Prix-Kansas City and ran into Ped the morning of the Grand Prix. I heard he had a good deck and I just didn’t want to play High Tide. So he gave me a decklist, I registered it and went ahead and put it together during my byes. So I played it out and the way Ped had it built at first - he builds decks that are more interesting and eccentric, like Sexy Rector and Life. He just builds decks a little differently and I have a purely tournament outlook on things. He only had one Wasteland, all sorts of comes-into-play-tapped lands and he could do a lot of cool things with his deck. There was Telepathy in the sideboard. Lots of things like that, which are interesting and fun, but they’re just not as high of a tournament caliber as they could be. So I basically took the core of the deck, gutted it and worked in all of the tournament quality cards. It’s certainly his idea, his theme and his deck. I never would have come up with it on my own. I took it from that tournament and made it a tier one, tournament-quality deck.

Sideboard: What about the deck made you latch onto it?

Maher: It was the sheer number of cards that tended to reduce the luck factor. With Tutors, Brainstorms and Impulses, I didn’t get mana screwed or mana flooded too often. With fetch lands, I got to play with a few more lands, but every time I sacrificed one, it thinned out my deck, so I wasn’t drawing them late game. Everything about the deck gave me options against any deck.

Sideboard: This venue must bring back a lot of memories, since it was the site of your Pro Tour win back in ’99. What was it like to win a Pro Tour close to your hometown?

It had a lot to do with me getting the confidence I needed…

Maher: It was great to win a Pro Tour in Chicago and it’s funny, because the two years previous to that, I had come with my now-wife to a New Year’s celebration at this hotel. It was actually in this room. So even in ’99, the first year they had a Pro Tour in the hotel, I knew the hotel layout and I knew everything about it. I was very comfortable here. I got to walk from my parents’ place here. It was really relaxing and I think it had a lot to do with me getting my first Pro Tour win. It had a lot to do with me getting the confidence I needed to be successful on the Pro Tour.

Sideboard: So being comfortable with the room made you more comfortable as a player?

Maher: Yeah. I knew my way around when I went out for lunch, I knew exactly where I was going and I got to walk home. I was sleeping in my own bed, I was showering at home - everything was more comfortable and it felt more like a PTQ. The venue was comfortable; it wasn’t a strange place. It wasn’t like I was walking in for the first time.

Sideboard: Any thoughts on the legendary finals match between yourself and Brian Davis?

Maher: I was happy for the win, because I did end up playing better than Brian and I ended up winning because of it. It’s wild to watch; I have the finals on tape. Neil Reeves, who is much more of a new player, he was staying at my house before Pro Tour-Boston. He watched it and he just couldn’t believe it either. He had heard about it, but just watching the match is really something. You can really see how nerves get into the game. You can see the expressions on everyone’s faces. If I was going to win a Pro Tour, I’d much rather that it was on the basis of skill than just random mana screw and things like that. I’d never imagine… in game five, you can see it on my face. I mean, I spent turns three and four without a permanent in play, while he had Necro and was drawing like mad.

Sideboard: I remember being in the crowd and we were all talking about how it was pretty much over at that point.

Maher: Yeah and I was getting so frustrated at the table because he Unmasked me and my hand was three Counterspells and a Force of Will. He takes one of the Counterspells and I’m sitting there, you can even see it in my eyes when you’re watching the tape. I’m just like “please, just let me punish him for this. He’s not playing well; he’s not taking the right cards; he hasn’t playtested this out”. I was getting so upset, not because I was losing, but because of the way I was losing and how he was playing. Slowly, I came out of it somehow. That game is probably going to be my favorite memory of Magic, no matter how long I play.

Sideboard: Any thoughts on Brian Davis’s progress as a player since then?

Maher: Brian Davis has gotten a reputation of making mistakes in high-pressure situations. I think that may end up being a self-fulfilling prophecy, because now he gets more nervous about making those mistakes and it affects his game more. He’s still a very skilled player and I respect his abilities quite a bit. I’m sure as time goes on, his nervousness will go away. My first few years on the Pro Tour, my hands would shake when I was playing. I don’t know if I was consciously nervous, but something was certainly going on if my hands were shaking. But, nothing like that has happened in years and think it’s just one of those things where eventually he’ll get used to it, things will go by and he’ll move on. He’s already made a few Top 8s and things like that and everyone respects his skill. It’s just that he happens to make mistakes.

Sideboard: Right, because I remember after 1999 PT-Chicago, people said that was it and that Brian Davis would never have a top finish again. But, obviously, it wasn’t a fluke.

Maher: Well he was like fifteen at the time. It was his first Pro Tour. But he’s done things in Top 8s under the camera, like the Psychatog or in a Feature Match against me, he mistapped his lands. He was at one and ended up taking a point of damage from a painland. There have been all sorts of little things. I think occasionally in high-pressure situations, the concentration isn’t there.

Sideboard: So you’re saying confidence is a big part of being successful.

Maher: Whether you admit it or not, you don’t necessarily need to have a conscious confidence. Neil Reeves is very pessimistic, but I think it helps his game. No matter what the board position is, he always feels like he’s losing and he doesn’t have room for a mistake. Whereas, you’ll see a lot of seasoned professionals when they’re playing, once they start winning, they’ll play a lot looser and they may miss a point here or there because they feel that they’re just crushing their opponent. Sometimes, it really comes back around to affect them. Everyone has to find the angle they need to play the game from. From playing in the Team Pro Tour with Gary Wise, I noticed Gary has to approach the game from a very confident standpoint. He needs to believe he’s the better player; he needs to believe he’s going to win. As long as he has that confidence and he’s not worried about losing, he plays very, very well. Neil is the exact opposite. I approach the game from a very pessimistic standpoint. Neil and I are very similar in that aspect - I always feel like I’m losing.

People will critique each others’ play and there are three of us, so we’ll always be watching, trying to learn. I really do, often times I’ll be sitting there and I’ll just be talking and saying that I feel like I’m losing. If something doesn’t go my way, I’m going to lose this game. A lot of the time, it’s not an accurate representation of the game, but it’s just the viewpoint I play from, because it makes me play very, very tight. I don’t feel like I can afford to make a mistake and everything is done very precisely.

Sideboard: Plus there’s also the added incentive of making your opponent feel that he’s winning when he’s really not. Is that a part of it too?

Maher: It’s a bonus. It’s not a conscious decision on my part to lure my opponent off that way. But, any type of misinformation is great. It’ll also help, especially lately with morphs and things like that, any time you’re throwing your opponent off a little bit with your reactions, it always helps a lot. Any time you’re keeping them guessing, it’s good. If my opponent thinks I’m winning and he doesn’t understand why I’m so upset, he may assume all my morphs are bad. There’s some sort of information he doesn’t have that will make him believe that I actually am losing, like my hand is all land or something like that.

Tomorrow, Bob talks about how he ended up teaming with Gary Wise and Neil Reeves, how their team dynamic works and where Dave Williams fits in for the future.

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