It’s time for Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir, a Pro Tour where you actually might see a few Dragons in action (in contrast to PT Dragon’s Maze). After a long drought I have qualified again, which also means that I might encounter a few of my previous interview partners on the battlefield, something I am definitely looking forward to. I briefly flirted with interviewing myself for the occasion, but it felt about as right as liking your own Facebook post so I quickly discarded that idea. Instead, this PT Special is business as usual, just talking to a few of the greatest players in the game ever—two Hall-of-Famers and the local hero. Let’s start with one Hall-of-Famer, and the rest of the interviews will be posted through the week.
Nationality: United States
Team: Team ChannelFireball: The Pantheon
Qualified via Hall of Fame
Pro Points: 305
Pro Tour Debut: Los Angeles 1998
Pro Tours played: 53
Win percentage: 59.0%
Top 8: 4 Pro Tours, 6 Grand Prix (2 wins), 3 Masters (2 wins), and 1 Invitational
Planeswalker Level: 47 (Archmage)
Other accomplishments: Hall of Fame class of 2008, $167,495 career earnings, only player to win two Masters
* = The 80% quantile is based on past results that are first normalized to a PT size of 400 players. It represents the result a player surpasses in every fifth Pro Tour on average.
Q: You haven’t played a Pro Tour in almost five years. For this Pro Tour you are on the roster of the Pantheon. Taking into account their reportedly rigorous bylaws, this means that you are not going to Brussels for a casual meet and greet. What sparked your interest in getting back to playing Magic competitively on the Pro Tour? What are your goals for this event, and beyond?
Ben: My goal is honestly to maintain my sanity through the course of the event.
Q: Over the course of the first Pro Tour season in 1996 almost every player that made a Top 8 didn’t have any Pro Tour experience, which is obviously not surprising. However, during the next season, in 1996–97, the established players claimed almost every Top 8 spot. Starting with Janosch Kühn’s finals appearance at Worlds 1997 there is a stretch of seven Pro Tours that have five newbies in the finals—you, Randy Buehler, and Dirk Baberowski among them. This suddenly dries up after 1998. Historically every other Pro Tour has had rookies in the Top 8, but for a couple of years after 1998 that was a very rare incident.
Where did all this talent materialize from around 1998? Do you think there was already a new generation of players at work when compared to the players that dominated the first two seasons? Why were the players of 1996–98 able to “suppress” upstarts for a such a long time afterwards?
Ben: I’m not sure if this is true. To name a few, I know that Kai Budde, Dirk Baberowski, and William Jensen all had their breakout performances during the 1999 season.
A related interesting note, however, is how does that generation look in hindsight? I remember when I first came to the Pro Tour (1997 Juniors), the big names were Mike Long, David Mills, Matt Place, Brian Weissman, Truc Bui, John Yoo, Chris Pikula, Brian Hacker, Tommi Hovi, Olle Rade, George Baxter, Paul Mccabe, Mark Justice, Scott Johns…
With due respect, we don’t hear much from these guys after 1999 (and frankly relatively little once the 1998 season starts).
But what about the players who became well known 1997–1999? Jon Finkel, Kai Budde, William Jensen, Patrick Chapin, Casey Mccarrell, Zvi Mowshowitz, Kyle Rose, Bob Maher, Mark Lepine, Dirk Baberowski, to name some of them. Most of these guys had a major impact on the Tour for years to come (and many are still winning Pro Tours!).
I think that very first generation managed their success partly on the infancy of the Pro Tour—that first season of PTs (1996) was like the first season of most competitions: murky, underdefined, underpublicized, and fairly weak.
It’s impressive that as early as 1997 we start to see the emergence of the all-time greats—players whose strength has been proven again and again in the 15-18 years since they hit their stride.
Other theories are possible, and some of those early players (I can tell you from personal experience) were quite strong. But it’s an interesting historical narrative in any case.
Q: You were not only successful at your first PT, you quickly added a second Top 8 at Worlds 1998. In a phenomenal Top 8, where you eliminated Jon Finkel and Scott Johns, you only lost in the finals to another rookie, Brian Selden. At that point you were 15-years-old, and had played in the finals of two of your three Pro Tours. After that outstanding success followed a drought of six Pro Tours where you did rather poorly. A few times over the years we have seen that high-level success out of the gate followed by a couple of bad events can be very hard on a kid. How did you cope with that situation?
Ben: Oddly enough, I initially had a reputation for being cool-headed and not letting the success get to me.
This is far from the truth, and it was very difficult to keep perspective on Magic, and my life, after making the finals of 2 of my first 3 big events. In the season that followed (1999) I actually did so badly that I had to win a PTQ to qualify for the first event of 2000. Luckily I had a lot of grit and 2000 and 2001 went quite well.
All the same, whether grasping success or devastated by defeat I was a fairly typical high school kid—insecure, confused, alternating between bravado and depression.
Q: Your successes in Magic tournaments are evenly distributed across all formats. Do you have any favorite formats or are you a true all-rounder? Taking a look at the decks you had success with, it stands out that you mostly chose creature decks in a time when many players gravitated towards combo or permission-style control. Is that coincidence or do you indeed prefer to play Magic with creatures?
Ben: I’ve played a lot of different decks, from Mono-Red aggro to Illusions Donate, to Forbiddian, to Supergro to Big Naya.
In the 2nd half of my career I did prefer creature strategies. Maybe because the games were shorter and easier to test, and the tournaments therefore less exhausting? Maybe because I felt the balance of power swinging toward creatures? Maybe there’s no rhyme or reason and that’s just where our testing lead. I feel pretty balanced between draft and constructed, but I still find deckbuilding the most interesting part of Magic.