People play Magic for all kinds of reasons: the flavor, the social interaction, the intellectual challenge, and countless other reasons. I play for a lot of different reasons, but one reason is for the epic matches – those that tell a story worth repeating for years to come. They can happen on the world's biggest stage, at the local game store, or even at home on a kitchen table. Today I'm going to share with you some of the matches that stand out the most in my memory and explain why I consider them to be epic.
Let's start by considering the obvious question:
A match doesn't need to have all of these characteristics to be epic, but the most epic matches tend to have several of these characteristics:
Let's consider these in order with examples.
Any Pro Tour match played on Sunday has a lot riding on the outcome of the match, and as far money is concerned, these matches have the MOST on the line. But money isn't the only thing that makes a match epic. It is one of many things that could be on the line. For instance, when paired against his wife at Grand Prix Indianapolis this past weekend, Adam Jansen had sleeping on the couch on the line if he won (spoiler: he won, but recovered by writing "I <3 U" on her breakfast pastry the next morning). Other times it can be your pride on the line. For instance, if you are considered the best player at your local shop and another player starts rivaling you for that title, a meetup in the 4-0 bracket at FNM can make for quite the showdown. The same could be true of a PTQ final, where the winner gets an invitation to the Pro Tour.
I remember a match a long time ago where I felt like I had a lot on the line. It was a local tournament in Nashville at Collector's World. I was a teenager and this was long before my time came to go pro in Magic. First place prize was only about a hundred dollars in store credit, so the monetary stakes were low, but there have been few matches in my life I wanted to win more than that match. You see, I was one of the best players at the store, and I got paired with one of the other best players at the store, Yancey, in the semifinals. The two of us would often meet in the Top 8 and the winner of our match would usually go on to win the tournament. This time Yancey was about to defeat me in game three and the winner of our match would face off against someone who had never been to the store before and was talking trash all day long saying how much better he is than anyone at our store.
Just as Yancey was about to deal me the deathblow, he looked up at me and said "My deck matches up poorly against his deck but I think you can beat him, so I concede. I hope you do us all proud and put him in his place." So it was up to me.
It was a long, epic match and we had quite a crowd. By the end, his trash talk tapered off and turned to salt as I arose victorious. I defended the home turf!
Several years later I played and won the most important match of my life: the finals of Pro Tour Dragon's Maze.
Another characteristic often involved in an epic match is that it goes down to the wire and several times throughout the match it goes back and forth. I've played a lot of close matches, but one in particular stands out to me as especially epic in this regard. It was the quarterfinal of Grand Prix Pittsburgh, where I played W/G Hatebears against my teammate, Corey Burkhart, playing Grixis Control. It was a real slugfest with each of us trading resources back and forth right up until the end. These are the types of matches I love to play and fortunately this one was a camera feature match.
In one of the games he transformed Jace, Vryn's Prodigy early and had it active for several turns, but in the end I managed to overcome all his removal and find a path to victory. Then in the deciding game there was a back and forth sequence the resulted in me landing a Choke to tap down half his lands and take away his ability to stay in the game. One might say I won by submission – chokehold.
Magic is a game that combines strategy and chance. It is part of what makes each game of Magic a novel experience unlike any previous game of Magic. Some of the most epic matches in the history of Magic involve going right down to the wire and being decided at the last possible moment by the turn of a card. These are the exciting climax finishes and can make a match epic pretty much regardless of the lead up. Hopefully at some point in my career I will have a maverick-style draw step as epic as the one Craig Jones had in the semifinal of Pro Tour Honolulu 2006 against Olivier Ruel:
A similarly epic climax occurred in the final of the 2013 World Magic Cup in Amsterdam when Team France was facing down lethal with one draw step remaining and drew Rakdos's Return for the win (starting around 1:19:00):
Sometimes it's obvious what card is needed, as with Craig Jones drawing the lethal burn spell, whereas other times the unexpectedness of the card is part of what makes the game or match epic. The match that stands out to me the most in this regard is from the Top 8 of Pro Tour Portland where Jackson Cunningham faced off against Yuuki Ichikawa (starting around 43:20).
Ichikawa was facing down a lethal attack and had to block an Advent of the Wurm token with his Scavenging Ooze. He had to grow the Scavenging Ooze to a 5/5 to kill the Wurm Token, which played right into Cunningham's Selesnya Charm, which he then cast, attempting to exile the 5/5 Scavenging Ooze so he could safely trample over it. But then in response Ichikawa played his last card in hand – Golgari Charm – shrinking the Ooze to a 4/4 and thus countering the Selesnya Charm before growing it back to a 5/5 to kill the now 4/4 Wurm Token! He went on to win that game (though not the match) on the back of that unexpected card interaction between Golgari Charm and Selesnya Charm.
The video quality is not so great on this next example since it was from 2010 before Pro Tour video quality improved to what it is today. Nevertheless the key moment comes in game 4 when I use Oblivion Ring to exile a Soldier Token and attack my White Knight into Elspeth, Knight-Errant to finish her off. Then I cast Kor Skyfisher (a card way off everyone else's radar) to bounce the "empty" Oblivion Ring back to my hand so I could later use it to exile a Baneslayer Angel. This elicited an audible gasp from the crowd (game 4 starts around 49:50 and the Oblivion Ring play happens around 1:05:00).
At other points in the tournament I would cast Oblivion Ring targeting an opposing Planeswalker, such as Jace, the Mind Sculptor. The opponent would then play a second copy of the same Planeswalker and I would use Kor Skyfisher to bounce my Oblivion Ring. This would cause both Planeswalkers to be on the battlefield simultaneously, killing both due to how the legend rule worked at the time, and leaving the Oblivion Ring back in my hand for the next permanent.
Sometimes a match is epic because one player is backed against the ropes and about to be defeated when all of a sudden they mount a comeback. Sometimes the comeback centers on a single draw step while other times it involves a serious of draws or circumstances aligning. One such comeback involved Gabriel Nassif drawing the one card in his deck that would save him. What made it even more epic was that he called his shot by arranging his lands in the shape required to cast the one card that would swing the game in his favor: Cruel Ultimatum.
Another epic comeback occurred in the quarterfinals of the 2010 World Championship in San Francisco where, unfortunately, I was on the losing end of the epic comeback. Conley Woods made a historic run, winning every single one of his matches to that point in the tournament. He had me down 0-2 in the best of five series before I started to make my mini-comeback and evened the series at 2-2. Then in the final game of the match I came out to a commanding lead while Woods did everything in his power to play around the Timely Reinforcements in my hand. His final draw step gave him just what he needed to be able to attack with all his creatures, force me to block to survive, and then have exactly enough blockers to survive my counter-attack. Even though I was the defender getting dunked on for Woods' poster jam, I'll admit it was an epic match played brilliantly by Woods.
Earlier this year I recounted perhaps the most epic comeback of my career.
High profile is relative. Much with the first example of a lot being on the line, the two high-profile players could be the best players at the local shop or simply a match between two rivals. The point is that each player has a story leading up to the clash of wills. This weekend, all 24 players in the World Championship have their own story. So between high-profile clashes and the title of World Champion on the line, there are plenty of ingredients to cook up some epic matches this weekend.
One of the most notable throughout history was between Jon Finkel and Bob Maher, the two players widely considered #1 and #2 in the world at the time. They were each playing the same deck and the match went to five games. It was even covered on ESPN, back before eSports was a thing.
Another epic match between two of the game's greatest titans happened in the finals of last year's World Championship where Seth Manfield defeated Owen Turtenwald in yet another epic match that went the full five games. Like Finkel and Maher, Manfield and Turtenwald played the same archetype, but instead of sporting Tinker, they played Abzan with Siege Rhino.
7. Something Truly Unique Happens
This last characteristic accounts for many of the matches that occur outside of tournament Magic that are nevertheless quite memorable and entirely epic. I love hearing stories about crazy things that happen in a match. Did you assemble Brisela, Voice of Nightmares in a prerelease match? Epic! Did you kill someone in a game of commander with Helix Pinnacle? Epic! Did you cast Sleight of Mind changing a Circle of Protection to Green in response to a Hurricane big enough to kill every player at the table in a five-player Star Battle? Epic!
Determining whether a match is epic is ultimately subjective. What matters is that it creates an experience worth revisiting again and again by either re-watching the match on video or retelling the story from memory. With the 2016 World Championship underway, the stage is set for some of the most epic matches in Magic history to be played. I'll be watching from home this year and hoping to see some epic matches played.
What is the most epic match of Magic you've ever played – a match you'll be telling people about for the rest of your life?