In today’s article, I’m going to do something I’ve been wanting to do for a long while—an interview with Jon Finkel! For those unaware (though I don’t believe there are any of you, honestly), Finkel (@Jonnymagic00 on Twitter) has the most Pro Tour Top 8s in history (14; next person has 10), is a Hall of Famer, and one of the only two people who can claim the title of “best player of all time”, as well as being something of a nerd hero—he even has a book written about him!
In some ways, I’m glad I waited a little on this—though the Finkel of old obviously already merited an interview, it’s the quitting and coming back process that fascinates me, particularly the difference between playing now and playing then. Many people are great players, but not many of them are among the best in the world at two completely different stages of their lives, so that’s what I wanted to focus on. I hope you enjoy this as much as I did, and a gigantic “thank you” to Jon for taking the time to answer all of these questions!
When I was first introduced to the world of tournament Magic, everyone knew you to be the best player on the planet. When I started attending Pro Tours, however, you no longer played competitively. When exactly did you quit, and why did you do it? When would you say you truly came back?
The last tournament in which I was fully dedicated to Magic was Worlds ’98. Arguably Chicago ’98, but it was draft. In the fall of ’98, I went back to school (having failed out and been forced to take a year off) and started to get into poker. And I really got into poker—there wasn’t really room for two obsessions. I playtested some for the other Pro Tours, but it just wasn’t quite the same. In the summer of 2000 I decided to put some effort in again after a string of poor finishes, but then I got involved in playing on the Blackjack team which again meant Magic wasn’t the primary focus of my life. After that I basically never playtested for Constructed, and even drafted far less than I do now, but was able to put up some strong draft results the final few years. Finally I called it quits after a pretty poor ’03-’04.
Basically my various other activities took priority (mostly at that point various gambling ventures). The idea that I would spend a lifetime making a living from Magic seemed far less probable than it does now. Also I think after ’97-’98 I felt like I didn’t really have anything to prove. Magic was beginning to feel a bit more like a job, and not something I did for fun that I also happened to compete in.
I got back into the game when Wizards sent me a bunch of boxes when I got my HoF induction. I’d mostly missed Mirrodin and completely missed Kamigawa block. I had these boxes and so emailed my NY Magic friends to see who wanted to draft Ravnica, which was a phenomenal block, and that’s what started getting me back into it.
I was just going to play in the draft PTs until they ended it after Kuala Lumpur, so I again decided not to bother with the Pro Tour. Playing in all the PTs this last year was the result of a confluence of factors. Philly was right next door so I decided go and put in a touch of effort (mostly because people wanted to stay and play at my apartment in NY the week before the PT). I did pretty well, and then the next PT (Worlds) was in SF where my sister lived, so I decided to go to that. Then I went to Hawaii since it was a great place to go in the middle of winter. After I lost in the semis there, all of a sudden I was almost Platinum, and in contention for the Players Champs, etc, so decided that I should go to Barcelona. There’s a good chance I’ll put in some work next year, but I can’t say how long that’s going to go on for. I still look at what’s involved in playing Constructed and it seems like hell.
How do you compare to the Jon of 1998? How do the players of today compare to the players from when you first played?
This is a complicated question that comes up in almost all sports, and it’s similar in Magic. If 1998 Jon could play all my matches, that would be great. I was ‘better’ then. I also put in more effort. That said now I have more experience, a good network, less hubris, and all sorts of advantages over the 1998 Jon. On the other hand, 1998 Jon had a faster processor and was truly dedicated.
As for players in general—the average was clearly lower but the top players were as good. The competiton at the top was hard. Take someone like Kibler who has been dominant the last few years—on his first go around, back when I was first playing, his results were far less impressive. Kai and I have both come back and made Top 8s.
In a lot of ways it’s a lot easier for the top players now. They have these team networks that just provide a huge advantage. On the other hand with the decline of drafting and rise of Magic Online I think it’s become harder for people to truly reach their potential. Playing online is far less constructive for improving your game than playing with real live people (and seeing them play). A lot of Constructed is just being a data collector for matchups and specific cards. So in the end it’s not a simple question.
Is your playtesting process very different?
I playtested with the local people in Jersey, and then the Deadguys, and then pretty much not at all. This last year I’ve done the whole big team thing where you show up for a week of solid play before the tournament. It’s a completely different world.
What do you think is your biggest strength in Magic today?
I want to play the best deck, not what I want to play. I have excellent choice in teammates. I still have a pretty fast processor and make relatively few technical mistakes. I take losing pretty well. All that older and wiser stuff that people say when they’ve lost a step and are past their prime, but still competitive.
How does the tournament structure of today compare to the tournament structure from when you first played? Is it easier or harder to be a Pro Magic player? Is the game more or less skill intensive?
They’ve made a real shift from PTs to Grand Prix. It’s funny because it both increases the advantage of being a ‘Pro’ but is also something the Pros would probably prefer to have shifted back the other way. I will never be truly competitive for the top of the player point race unless I run exceptionally well like this year, because I’ll never go to that many GPs. This was a change that started back in my time that I really didn’t like. In order to win PotY I would have to go to all these GPs and I just didn’t want to do that after ’99. It also played a factor in my declining motivation because I didn’t really want to compete for something that I couldn’t win.
What did Magic mean to you back then, and what does it mean to you now?
From 1994-1998 Magic was the thing I spent the single most amount of time on. I would go to game stores every weekend and most week nights. I would sit in class and make decklists, all the things everyone else out there has probably done. When the PT came along and I realized I was good, I was completely dedicated to being the best. I felt like I had a lot to prove. Then I had some success and moved onto other obsessions. Now Magic is a game I love and something I do with many of my friends. It’s a community and it’s a huge part of my life, but it’s completely different.
How has Magic influenced your non-Magic life? Are there practical applications to what you’ve learned playing Magic?
Pretty much every way I’ve ever made money has a lot in common with what made me good at Magic. Now I tend to be of the school of thought that there was something which made me good at Magic which also made me good in all of these other areas (and probably bad at some others), but probably the biggest thing is how I take losing. I don’t really mean in terms of it getting me down or making me angry, but how it impacts the decisions I’ll make in the future. I am able to be self-critical without being overly critical, and having it impact my play or overreacting to a small sample size. I guess I’m pretty good at Bayesian updating. Now what mix of that was already there vs. learned from Magic…
To you, how much of Magic is talent and how much is practice? How much is psychological? Can someone be very good on the back of talent alone? Can someone be very good even if they’re not particularly talented, assuming they try hard enough?
You need both talent and practice to be successful. I spent some years doing well with talent and very little practice, but I had countless hours of learning leading up to that from years before. I do think that if someone has played a lot of magic, talent with subpar practice will get you further than the converse (aka the Michael Flores). As for psychological? I don’t really know how to answer this. I don’t really tilt at Magic, so it’s hard for me to judge.
Do you play any other games competitively? Casually?
I played Heroes of Newerth for a while, but am clean for about a year. I’ll play pretty much any party game, and play strategy board games sometimes, but I don’t really partake in any other ‘hobby gaming.’
It goes around that “switching decks in the last minute” is something you should never do, yet you did exactly that for PT Barcelona, and the results were very good. Is this something you’re comfortable doing or were the circumstances for that Pro Tour special?
I think ‘never’ is a strong word. I really wasn’t happy with anything we had in Barcelona. The day before I was going to play Boros (the list that Rietzl went on to play), although no one else was on board until Paul arrived. The night before, Sam and Kai went into the other room, came back and said, “this Spirits deck is awesome.” It did well in the last minute testing, and I thought it made a lot of sense against the expected metagame. Since you need to do very well to win a PT, I decided to go with the deck that could be amazing, but might actually suck, rather than the Boros deck we had or one of our other so-so options. I got lucky this time.
Let’s say you’re attending PT Seattle, but you have absolutely no time to play any games. You can choose any person, and then get a 75 card-copy of whatever deck they’re playing. Whose deck do you choose to play?
Sam Black hands down. Although if I could get the ChannelFireball Deck, that would work too. I also tend to like a lot of what Cuneo does, and if God came down and told me I had to play control, I’d be looking Chapin’s way.
All that said, it’s a pretty easy choice of Sam Black.
Assuming you had won the Pro Tour and become the National Champion for the U.S., who would have been your ideal three teammates for the World Cup?
The third one is hard. I have a feeling Matt Costa might be really good, and for all the hard time I give him, Tom Martell is also very solid (and would be even better if he had ‘protection from tilting’). If I could make him get into shape and prepare, Zvi would be my top choice in a blowout, with William Jensen right behind him (so technically I guess that’s Zvi edging Billy blowing out the field). Having said all that, I’d pick the man who actually became our fearless leader, Brian Kibler.
Are you going to play the Team GP in San Jose? Do you have a team already?
Yes, I’m going to go with good old Team Antarctica, Steve and Dan OMS.
What are your thoughts on the World Cup and Player’s Championship structure as a whole?
I think it’s pretty good if they add another PT to replace Worlds. The Players Champs to replace Player of the Year is an improvement I think. It would be nice if the World Cup teams pulled more from the top players. Maybe have 2-9 play for the second spot, or invite the top 2 or something. Could also just see having the top 4 get the slots, but I also understand that they want to have something for people to play for. The more I think about it now though, the more I like making the teams from the ranks of the most successful players that year.
What do you think of the formats in the World Cup, especially Cube? Are you going to do a lot of playtesting or does it have more of an “invitational feeling” for you?
I’ll draft the Cube and M13 for sure. As for Modern? I’m trying to pretend it doesn’t exist. But I’ll probably play at least a little.
What deck are you playing in Modern?!
Wolf Run Ramp.
You’re highly regarded as one of the best drafters of all time. What do you think it is that you do and the average Pro Tour drafter doesn’t? Does your advantage come from the draft portion itself, the playing of the games, or both?
Both. I think they feed off each other, but I seem to do pretty well with slightly subpar decks. When drafting for fun I tend to draft more what I want to and less what is the ‘right’ thing to be drafting, but still manage to do OK. I really don’t know what I do that the average PT drafter doesn’t. I probably take a few more chances with high variance cards but outside of that I’m not sure.
What do you look for in a deck the most? (other than “has a good win %—i.e. gives me a lot of options, has free wins, doesn’t have free losses, has good sideboard, blanks a lot of the opponent’s cards, consistent mana, surprise factor, etc.)
The answer is has a good win %. The rest is all very deck and metagame dependent. I’ll play a deck with a poor sideboard if it wins a lot. Don’t mind auto-losses if it mostly wins. It’s whatever combination of the factors you mention produce the best win rate. I know it’s a kind of non-answer, but by just factoring one or two things to the exclusion of others you’re really costing yourself. That’s how you end up playing the same deck all the time.
All that said, I’m most likely to be playing Islands, but I think that’s more of a bug than a feature—a reflection of subpar choices by me.
Obviously we all do what we think is correct at the time, but in general do you consider yourself a “gambler” when it comes to keeping hands? Do you keep a lot of hands that might “get there” or do you prefer going to six? Do you think the average competitive player swings too far in either direction?
This depends a lot on the composition of your deck, and the expected quality of your opponent. I tend to gamble more vs. good players/poor matchups/with weak draft decks, and play it safer and mulligan when I think I have the advantage in the match. I don’t really have a good sense of what the average competitive player does because I am pretty out of touch, and almost never watch coverage.
Is there a player who you feel should really be in the Hall of Fame but has so far not been voted in? (of the people who were eligible)
William Jensen. Not close. Hey, HoF voting is coming up: All you jokers reading this should vote for Billy (Paulo too of course). He really was just that good and I can’t believe he isn’t in yet. Well, I can believe it, but it’s a travesty.
In a match for the Top 8, who is the person you least want to see in front of you today?
I don’t really think in those terms. I mean the top players are all going to be around 50-50 with me. Sure some I have a great record vs. and others an awful record vs. but that’s just because of small sample sizes. What’s the difference between a matchup vs LSV, Kibler, or Sam Black? Maybe 1-2%. It’s all the same.
When you traveled to Pro Tours (and when you travel now), did you usually take time to see the city and do tourist stuff, or is it all business for you? What was the best location you’ve ever traveled to with Magic?
I was mostly just there for the tournament. I would always have liked to see more of the city and area, but who really has the time? Also I’ve never been that touristy. I like being in a new city, eating the food and walking around but I’ve never been that big on ‘seeing the sights’ and the like.
Best location? Hawaii has a lot going for it in terms of weather. Tokyo is awesome because it’s like you’re in the future. For years I used to say Sydney, and maybe it was, but it’s so long ago it’s hard to remember. Cape Town was nice just because it was so alien and yet also familiar.
Maybe just PT 1 in New York, since the venue is four blocks from my apartment, and I love my neighborhood.
Do you think they should ban anything from the Delver deck?
I’m so out of touch with the goings-on of constructed. Not Ponder—I hate cutting consistency, or skill-testing cards. If they decided to ban something, why not just ban [card delver of secrets]Delver[/card]? It’s a stupid card—so random and so swingy.
Is there a card you’re really hoping to see reprinted in M13?
UU: Counter target spell.
Can you tell us a bit more about your scholarship program?
The idea for Gamers Helping Gamers started with Tim McKenna, a New York Magic player originally from Maine via Chicago. He has also done the lion’s share of the work with getting the organization up and running. The rest of the board is composed of Eric Berger, Matt Wang, Bob Maher, Chris Pikula, and me. The six of us get together and choose recipients from the pool of applicants, most likely two per year. Any students who are undergraduates at U.S. universities are eligible.
We considered the question of foreign schools, since Magic is obviously an international game, but in the end decided to focus on the U.S. for two reasons. First of all, we know the U.S. much better than any other countries, so we’re more easily able to assess the students’ records and their financial needs. Second, the U.S. university system is significantly more dysfunctional in terms of financial burden upon the students than the rest of the developed world. For kids who weren’t lucky enough to have been born to an affluent uterus, the cost of university can be crippling and put them into a lifetime of debt. Our application deadline just passed on June 1, and we’ll be announcing the winners as soon as we’ve had time to review the applications. If anyone wants to learn more they can visit us at gamershelpinggamers.org
Rochester draft, then booster draft.
Favorite deck ever
Wow. I really don’t have one.
Favorite book (other than the one about you!)
I’m bad at picking favorites. I’ll say “This is Spinal Tap,’ because it’s in the running and half the audience is probably too young to remember it, and they sure as hell should go see it.
Favorite TV show/series
West Wing/Arrested Development/The Wire/Game of Thrones.
There is this absurdly good Chinese restaurant in New York called Red Farm, and I don’t even really like Chinese. It’s my current favorite place. In a vacuum? Definitely Japanese.
That was awesome Jon, thanks a lot!
Again, I hope you’ve enjoyed it, and see you next week!