Feature: The Return of Jonny Magic

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The letter I! honestly thought Jon Finkel was kidding when he claimed that he might attend Pro Tour-Prague when the topic came up during our Hall of Fame induction interview at last season's World Championships. Between amassing more Pro Tour Top 8s than any other player in the game's history, holding every meaningful title there is to hold, and sitting at No. 2 on the all-time money winner's list there seemed to be little left for Jon to conquer in the world of competitive Magic.

A funny thing happened on the way to the Hall of Fame induction ceremony. In case any of the players from the inaugural class wanted to take advantage of their free invite to Worlds, they were all sent a box of every current Magic set to help them become familiar with the cards. Jon, who had continued to play off-and-on with his globe-trotting gang of gaming masterminds (their exploits are well-chronicled in "Jonny Magic and the Card Shark Kids"), could not resist the lure of unopened booster packs.

Ravnica had just been released and it seemed like the perfect opportunity to round up some retired Magic players - and one very-much-unretired coverage reporter - for some high-stakes draft action in downtown Manhattan. While Jon may have made some misclicks in the early drafts he showed off the chops that allowed him to Top 8 multiple Limited Pro Tours with little to no preparation in the waning days of his Hall of Fame career.

While other players were still debating the merits of the double lands, Jon was picking them and signets as high as second. This may be common practice now but at the time it seemed earth shattering - especially as Jon was able to play the best cards from multiple guilds while everyone else seemed to be scrambling to fill in their playables.

That was not the most shocking development though. Far more earth-shattering was Jon's realization that playing Magic was fun. What had started out as a novelty draft among some old friends became increasingly frequent social engagements that would go long into the night with Jon sending out the electronic invitations. Pretty soon there was an ever-growing email list with Magic veterans like Eric Kesselman, Igor Frayman, Chris Manning, Jamie Parke, Eric Philipps, Tim McKenna, Chris Pikula, Tony Tsai, and others debating pick orders, exchanging Magic bad beat stories, and cajoling the magical sixth or eighth needed to fill out a draft.

Jon's apartment was transformed into Neutral Ground circa 1998. As players either qualified, or realized they were going to make the trek to Prague for the times and the LCQ, the drafts subtly morphed into playtesting - and yet no one viewed it as a chore, Magic was fun.

Guildpact gave way to Dissension and with the scant remaining days until the Pro Tour the drafts kicked into overdrive. Squads were dispatched to the local Midnight Prereleases to win/trade for packs and a relief team hit the a.m. tournaments on Saturday. Abundant product was scored on all fronts. Joining the cast at Jon's were his Antarctica teammates Steve and Dan O'Mahoney-Schwartz. Dan had won a New England PTQ while Steve was hoping for an LCQ scratch-off ticket (sometimes known as a broken sealed deck). Despite the embarrassment of Dissension riches they still managed to pump the well dry and were scrambling to find anyone with packs come this Monday.

Those 500-odd words sets the stage for a momentous occasion (not mention ringing endorsements for both Ravnica Block Limited and the Hall of Fame) - the return of Jonny Magic. Not only was Jon playing on the Pro Tour again but he was enjoying the game as much as he ever had in his life, was as experienced with the new format as any player in the room, and had a plan.

Jon went into the first draft of his first Pro Tour since Worlds 2004 - also the setting of the final chapter of David Kushner's book about Jon's life - simply wanting to take the best cards and mana fixing to cast them. He was not going to try and force anything.

His draft pod featured a tantalizing feature match possibility as Akira Asahara - who channeled his inner Finkel at Worlds 2005 - was seated to his right.

Draft One: Pod Seven

1 Hugo Sa
2 Ichirou Shimura
3 Brandon Scheel
4 Bo Sun
5 Shouta Yasooka
6 Bill Stark
7 Akira Asahara
8 Jon Finkel

Ravnica:

Jon was twitching with nervous energy as he waited for the judge to let them look at pack one. Jon may try to put on a blasé face when it comes to - well, frankly when it comes to anything - but there was no denying the excitement he was feeling as he waited to crack the first Pro Tour draft pack in over a year-and-half.

Jon Finkel was practically giddy when the first draft started.

The first pack immediately put Jon to task as he had to choose between Loxodon Gatekeeper and Viashino Fangtail. The other notable card in the pack was a Vedalken Dismisser but that only earned a cursory glance. Jon put the cards down and thought about his pick and ultimately went with the rare pachyderm. Next up was a buffet of Snapping Drake, Dimir Aqueduct, Halcyon Glaze, Dimir Cutpurse, and a Jon Finkel favorite, Darkblast. He chose the Azorius path and the enchantment. Bathe in Light was a clear pick with nothing else of note to contend in the third pack.

He remained on target throughout the remainder of Ravnica with only a slight detour for a very late Clinging Darkness with Orzhov looming in the second set of packs. Jon closed out Ravnica with 10 solidly blue or white cards including a Conclave Equenauts, Blazing Archon, Spawnbroker, and Divebomber Griffin.

Guildpact:

Jon was in position to draft either Orzhov or Izzet in Guildpact although he seemed unhappy about his blue cards - taking a moment to give his Halcyon Glaze the middle finger during the review period. The second wave kicked off with Harrier Griffin, Train of Thought, Mourning Thrull, Ostiary Thrull, and Izzet Boilerworks. The six-drop flier ended up on top of his picks but he immediately seemed to question it - perhaps wanting to keep his options open by taking the karoo instead.

Harrier Griffin

A second-pick Izzet Boilerworks and follow-up Repeal seemed to confirm that notion and Jon began drifting toward Izzet. He lurched to a sudden halt when he saw Seize the Soul, Blind Hunter, Ghost Warden, and Orzhov Basilica in pack four (in case you were wondering, Hugo Sa took Orzhov Euthanist over that array for his black-red deck which was centering on that Fangtail Jon passed him).

Jon holed himself up in an Orzhov Basilica when the next pick came around and also snapped up a similarly colored-up Signet after a Mourning Thrull. Agent of Masks and Withstand rounded out the relevant picks in Guildpact, leaving Jon to hope for a solid Azorius hook-up in pack three.

Dissension:

Jon grinned happily as he saw Master of Impediments - dubbed Obstacles (pronounced vaguely like Socrates) by Jon Becker - while flipping his pack around to count out and make sure there were fifteen cards. He was even happier when he saw Sky Hussar. The next pack was more challenging as it contained Seal of Doom, Mistral Charger, Master of Impediments, and Freewind Equenaut.

There are two schools of thought you can attend at this juncture of the draft. The first is one that favors beatdown, consistency, and a steady manabase. The other values power over all else. Jon will always take the better card even if it does not have the most synergy with his deck. Any of the blue and/or white cards would have allowed Jon to draft an aggressive blue-white deck that could more easily support the powerful Halcyon Glaze but Jon could not pass up on not only the Seal of Doom but the Seize the Soul from the previous packs.

Halcyon Glaze

The Halcyon Glaze felt the door hit its ass on the way of out of the deck as Finkel took the triple-black Avatar of Discord and crossed his fingers. Paladin of Prahv was his next pick over Rakdos Carnarium. The next two packs offered additional dual-dilemmas: Jon agonized between Azorius First-Wing and Azorius Chancery before finally taking the flier even though he was unlikely to be able to cast him on the ideal turn. He had a second shot at a Chancery but it came at the cost of the extremely swingy Carom. The remainder of Dissension included Macabre Waltz, Hit//Run, and a Carnarium.

"I don't think I can play it," Jon lamented, looking at his second-picked Halcyon Glaze. "I would like to but I can only manage something like seven blue sources and that would just be lame."

It was clear from that statement that he was intending to play not only the Seize the Soul but the triple-black Avatar. "I have four karoos, three of which make red, black, or both," Jon confirmed.

"My deck is fine but it is not great," Jon assessed. "I have first pick quality cards from all my packs."

The last spot in the deck that Jon was conflicted about came down to Steeling Stance or Vesper Ghoul. He opted for the painful mana-fixer and accelerant as he looked over at his nine-casting cost Archon.

"This guy will help me get my big drops plus I had a bet with Jamie Parke that I would have one in a deck this weekend."


Round One: Jon Finkel vs. Hugo Sa

Jon's first match of his return to the Pro Tour was against the player to his left throughout the draft - Portugal's Hugo Sa. The match went to three games with Jon stumbling in the second game when his deck delivered all four karoos and only one basic land. He could never get a manageable amount of mana on the table while Hugo came out of the gates early and often. He took the third game easily and kicked things off with a winning record.

Round Two: Brandon Scheel

Loxodon Gatekeeper

USA's Brandon Scheel also took a game off of Jon in their match but in the final game, Jon debated on turn two between laying a karoo or playing a Signet - he had seen Trygon Predator in the earlier games. He thought for a moment, shrugged and played the Signet. When he drew Loxodon Gatekeeper on the next turn (with a subsequent fist pump), he was rewarded and that was exactly the cad he was hoping for when he played it. Brandon had a hellacious draw that should have run roughshod over anything but a turn-three Gatekeeper and Jon squeezed out the victory.

"I had no possible chance that game," admitted Jon with a grin. "Unless I had the best possible guy for turn three."

"When you played the Signet," Brandon recalled with a sigh, "I was so excited about my turn-four Stomphowler."

Round Three: Ichirou Shimura vs. Jon Finkel

Game 1

Off to a 2-0 start, Jon found himself heading for the feature match area with Japanese National team member Ichirou Shimura. Shimura was looking forward to a strong season as he anticipates entering the job market next year and may not have the luxury to pursue the Pro Tour lifestyle after 2006. Getting past Jon Finkel and going 3-0 would be a good omen in that regard.

Ichirou Shimura put an end to Jon's strong start.

Shimura led the match off with Surveilling Sprite on the draw. Jon lived the impossible dream and played a turn-two First-Wing. Shimura showed Jon where all the Master of Impediments that he passed ended up with his turn three play.

Jon mustered a meager army that included Nightguard Patrol and Courier Hawk but they were overshadowed by an Assault Zeppelid on the other side of the red zone. The Vedalken Dismisser skipped from Jon's opening pack sent the Courier Hawk back to the top of Jon's deck to be an underwhelming draw for a second time in the same game.

Jon tried to stabilize his board with Divebomber Griffin but Shimura went offensive with his tapper and locked down the first striker, played Giant Solifuge, and attacked with everyone. Jon blocked in such a way as to kill as much as possible but fell to one life. Things looked bad for Jon, especially when Shimura played a second Master of Impediments.

Blazing Archon made a timely appearance and kept Jon from dipping below one to creature damage but Jon could not break through the pair of Obstacles. You could hear the snapping of Jon's spine as Shimura tapped out to draw four cards with Train of Thought.

By that time Shimura had more than enough mana to RepealBlazing Archon and swing for the elusive final point. More importantly he was able to win the game without showing Jon the Savage Twister that had been sitting in his hand for the entire game.

Game 2

Seal of Doom was Jon's turn-three play in the second game while Shimura had the inevitable tapper which Jon smoked after playing Agent of Masks; Harrier Griffin soon followed. Shimura coiling Oracle'd into a Snapping Drake.

Ichirou showed some fight and Dismissed the six-drop with the pricey 2/2. When the Harrier Griffin came back and tussled with Coiling Oracle it was shot down with Wildsize. Jon offered his Agent up in a swap for a freshly baked Snapping Drake and Shimura was eager to cooperate. Macabre Waltz bought back the Agent and the Harrier Griffin, discarding Avatar of Discard. Loxodon Gatekeeper made a timely appearance and suddenly Shimura could not keep up with his guys coming into play tapped and the Harrier Griffin tapping anyone who might be in position to defend.

Game 3

Rain of Embers

Jon took out his Avatar to side in Rain of Embers. Call it Savage Twister against a team of Obstacles, Scatter, and Sprites - not to mention something bigger if Jon has Seize the Soul haunting something.

It would have been great if Jon could have drawn it but Shimura was able to get Fists on a Bramble Elemental (a.k.a. Antwaan Bramble El) and parlay the four tokens into an end-of-turn Scatter the Seeds while Jon was still trying to get his deck to kick into gear.

When Coiling Oracle fetched up Vedalken Dismisser, the writing was on the wall. Jon was able to kill the fattie with Seal of Doom but he could not cope with its legacy.

Jon was disappointed to have lost but felt good heading into the last three rounds of Day One before everyone with anything worse than a 4-2 record would be cut from the tournament.

Draft Two

Jon's second draft of the day was a poster child for the argument of deck consistency over raw power. Again we return to the two schools of draft for this format; drafting the best cards for a style of deck versus building the best deck around the cards you draft. It is a subtle distinction but it should be well-illustrated by the next three packs.

Asked for his strategy heading into the draft Jon showed which way he was leaning, "There is no specific deck I want. I am just going to take the best cards from each pack."

1 Quentin Leroy
2 Richard Hoaen
3 Tomohide Sasagawe
4 Jon Finkel
5 Andre Mueller
6 Aaron Lipczynski
7 Andrii Alieksieiev
8 Patrick Tomelitsch

Ravnica:

There was no debate as to Jon's first pick. He could conceivably have taken Drift of Phantasms or Watchwolf but not over Last Gasp and those were the only three real cards in that pack you would consider with which to start. Jon was passed a second-pick Gasp from the Japanese Sasagawe. Jon did a quick scan of the expansion symbols and saw that an uncommon was gone. As it turns out, the pick that Sasagawa made was Keening Banshee - potentially bad news for Jon.

Savage twister

The next pack offered Jon a signal-tastic Sunhome Enforcer. Jon leaned toward Wojek Embermage with his third pick alongside Oathsworn Giant, Lurking Informant, and Selesnya Evangel but took Strands of Undeath instead. Razia kept him on the straight and narrow Boros path as did the Veteran Armorer in the next pack. The next two cards in his pile were Mindleech Mass and a second Strands.

Guildpact:

It's unclear what Jon should have been looking for out of the second set of packs. He had Boros cards and a couple of Last Gasps for relevant playables. He was well set up to aim for red-white-blue with a touch of black for his removal. He could also look to go Orzhov - bridging his three first pack colors - and then Rakdos in the last pack. Instead Jon decided that he could not pass up on the raw power of Savage Twister and took it over Shrieking Grotesque.

Izzet Boilerworks was the second card from Guildpact despite Mourning Thrull, Ghost Warden, and a Euthanist calling him toward the Basilica. Another Grotesque beckoned in pack three but now that Jon was down this road he could not resist the Izzet Chronarch. The Orzhov river kept on flowing but Jon chose Basilica over Orzhov Guildmage and Daggerclaw Imp. To his left, Andre Mueller, who had been picking Izzet cards at every turn, was gifted with a fourth-pick Niv Mizzet.

Jon ended up with two more Basilicas sandwiching a Chronarch and a Steamcore Weird - each time Mueller took the opposite of the two cards; Weird over Chronarch and then visa versa. The third Basilica came over a very late Pyromatics.

Dissension:

Dissension earned a pouty face from Jon as there was nothing obvious for him in that pack. For the Simic player at the table there were three beauties: Assault Zeppelid, Plaxmanta, and Silkwing Scout. Azorius offered Court Hussar and First-Wing. Jon took the impulse guy and looked for better returns to come. Sadly for him, there was little more than Cackling Flames, Macabre Waltz, and Ratcatcher.

He did pick up three more karoos - bringing the grand total to seven - all of which were Simic Growth Chambers. He took the third one over a Rakdos Signet which he regretted immediately after the draft since he could not possibly play with all seven of them - although he was tempted to try.

Shrieking Grotesque

"My deck is awful," complained Jon as he looked at it, laid out for the first time. "I cannot cast a spell in my deck.

"I want to get a third green source into the deck for the Savage Twister and I want it to be free," Jon thought aloud about the possibility of the third Simic land. "I know I am playing 17 lands. I would probably mulligan a lot though. I really wish I had taken that signet."

As he toyed with the mana he reassessed his opinion of the deck, "Actually it is #$%^ing awful!"

It seemed to me that one of the key picks in the draft was when Jon was lured by the potential of Savage Twister over the less-exciting Shrieking Grotesque. Jon defended the pick strongly with the lessons learned in the school of powerful cards.

"I took the Twister because I could very well be able to cast it and Shrieking Grotesque is just a mediocre card."

Was there anything Jon felt he could have done differently?

"I could have taken the Embermage over the Strands. I could have tried to set myself up for Azorius in third pack," Jon shrugged as he finished off his mana base with a sporting chuckle. "My mana is six-six-five-four-two."

Round Four: Jon Finkel vs. Andre Mueller

Andre Mueller is an immensely entertaining player who was last seen in the Top 8 of Pro Tour-Philadelphia. Mueller had an extremely synergistic deck that revolved around the Izzet guild and their pet card-drawing dragon. He took a quick Game 1 against Jon's clumsy land draw.

In Game 2 Jon looked to have a trump for Niv-Mizzet with Mindleech Mass but Mueller had the ideal card to both foil the monster's ability and fuel the dragon's pinging - Bottled Cloister. Jon gamely managed to get the German down to 5 life before the dragon actually shot down the Mass with some painful help from Cerebral Vortex. Finkel was holding two lands and a Cackling Flames. With abundant mana he could cast any spell in his deck if he could avoid lands being on top of his deck for just one turn.

Jon's deck was uncooperative for two turns and, with three cards a turn coming to him, Andre drew into the white Eidolon just ahead of Jon getting Hellbent. Jon looked for a window to kill the German or the Eidolon - the former would surely follow the latter - but he did not.

Jon was now facing two rounds of elimination.

Round 5: Jon Finkel vs. Patrick Tomelitsch

Game 1

The opening game was a fast and dirty affair with Austria's Patrick dumping Elves of Deep Shadow, Aquastrand Spider, and a boosted-up Beacon Hawk into play before Jon could manage more than a red Eidolon.

While the Hawk was swooping in for two a turn, Jon's Ratcatcher was put on the comp list for the Wrecking Ball.

Patrick could have Faith's Fettered a Bloodscale Prowler but decided to make an Oathsworn Giant instead. Faith's Fetters was worth a concession a turn later.

Game 2

Kamiel Cornelissen, already eliminated, watched over Jon's shoulder as he sideboarded with no games to give to avoid elimination. An ever-so-slight mile creased Kamiel's ever-stoic face as Jon reached for a Plains and Dromad Purebred to stave off that third loss for one more round. Not at enough of a disadvantage, Jon mulliganed his opening seven. With six bounce lands, Jon's build was much more resistant to mulligans than other decks relying on traditional lands.

Jon's day came to an end at the hands of Patrick Tomelitsch.

Patrick made the first man with a Wild Cantor which was quickly joined by a Civic Wayfinder. Jon had no plays yet and just fired off an Izzet Boilerworks. Patrick punished the slow hand with his Fertile Imagination, naming creatures and hit four - for eight tokens. Razia, Riftcutter, Bloodscale, and Purebred. He also saw two lands and Last Gasp which took out the Wayfinder end-of-turn.

Jon drew into Sunholm Enforcer and played it. It killed a guy and Jon took five. Cantor stayed back to make mana for a Flame-Kin Scout. There was some laughter from the spectators along the rail as they did not forget the Purebred in Jon's hand - even if Patrick must have. There was much more laughter from the crowd as the Purebred 187'd the Scout and gained Jon a point of life.

Faith's Fetters landed on the Enforcer and Patrick charged in. Jon fell to six and ate another guy. An Indrik Stomphowler was temporarily stranded in Patrick's hand with only the Fetters as a target.

Jon continued to attrition away the token, this time with Steamcore Weird. Patrick saw that attacking was not going to be profitable and settled on putting Hypervolt Grasp on a token as his endgame. Jon summoned a Chronarch to get back Last Gasp and killed the token.

Indrik Stomphowler

With Flight of Fancy in hand, Patrick could have cast the Stomphowler and taken out one of his own Signets to get the 4/4 into play with flight on its things to do list. Instead he simply cast the enchantment on a token and pecked away for one.

They fought back and forth over cards with Last Gasp number two getting the flier and Court Hussar finding the mana for Razia. Wrecking Ball was waiting for it when it lands and eventually Jon just succumbed to the rush of guys - and by "rush" I mean Beacon Hawk and Goliath Spider.

Jon hoped for Savage Twister on the top and took his fate like a man when it was not. He checked "drop" on the result slip and looked down at the Purebred.

"At least this was a good sideboard card," Jon smiled.

Did he at least have a good time?

"Yeah," he admitted as he planned to play in a Two-headed Giant tournament with Steve OMS on Saturday. "I would have had a better time if I had not drafted such a lame deck."

Jon defended his strategy to the end despite the poor results. It could be that Jon's card valuations tripped him up in the end. He felt that he had been signaled that black would be open in the third pack by the late-pick signals he received. Jon has had tremendous success with Strands of Undeath and may value it more highly than others do. He saw no Rakdos cards in that final pack and other than the one Last Gasp he was not passed any significant black in either the first or last packs.

Seal of Doom

There is a lot of synergy woven throughout each guild and although a Mistral Charger may be considerably less powerful than Seal of Doom, it does have a role to play in an Azorius deck - which is to come down early and be backed up by tricks such as Withstand or Overrule while players try to deal with the early threat.

In his final article on Magicthegathering.com - an article I consider to among the very finest things ever written on playing the game we all love - Zvi Mowshowitz postulated that tempo was more relevant to winning a game of Magic than card advantage. This flies in the face of classic Magic theory which has always valued card advantage as the gold standard. It may be that despite Jon's formidable talents and mental acuity, aspects of the game have changed in his absence. His play group consists of an older crowd with similar valuations to his own and it could be that if he shows up in Kobe - he is going to be in Charleston with Steve and Dan, by the way - Jon may have to learn how to attack for two.

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