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An Oral History of Randy's Chicago

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Why do people become stuck in memory? When history is examined, it is more often a confluence of events rather than a conflux of people that shape the world. And yet, people are discrete—they are knowable. Maybe it is easier to relate to individuals in their times than it is to try to comprehend an entire group in an epoch.

Necropotence
Randy Buehler is such an individual. History happened around him, and yet, we talk about Randy as if he were an intrinsic part of the story—perhaps because, in this case, he is.

Randy is a member of the Magic Pro Tour Hall of Fame, elected in its third year of its existence and his first year of eligibility. He owns a litany of titles: Pro Tour Champion, Rookie of the Year, Vintage aficionado, former member of R&D, and premier-play commentator.

Randy Buehler is also a statistical anomaly. He stands in sharp contrast to almost every rule one thinks about when talking about the Hall of Fame. He was exceptional. His career was truncated by a prolonged sojourn in Renton that prevented him from racking up accolades. This year, we will see Shota Yasooka inducted with only two Pro Tour Top 8s—Randy has one. His career slinging cardboard at the highest levels was exceptionally brief, but the impact was strong enough to echo through to today, a decade and a half later.

For just over two years, Buehler was a dominant force on the professional scene, and the question of what he could have done had he not gone behind the scenes remains unanswered to this day.

As Magic continues to grow and the Hall of Fame adds members, Randy will forever stand apart. It is a study in greatness that transcends time. But how did he propel himself to the highest echelons?

It all started at Carnegie Mellon University.

Team CMU

Nate Heiss:

In a little school building called Cyert Hall, people like Erik Lauer, Andrew Cuneo, Elliot Fung, Chris Esko, Josh Brody ... spent their spare time leisurely playing these games while tinkering with the cute new card game on the market. It turned out to be more fun th[a]n they initially thought it would be, and the game quickly became a standard game to play at Cyert Hall on CMU (Carnegie Mellon University) campus.

A local store was holding a Two-Headed Giant tourney one fateful day when a team composed of two helpless newbies (Randy Buehler and Del Laugel) was pitted against the wits of Erik Lauer and … Pete. Randy played a Stormdrain deck while his partner, Del played a deck whose entire purpose was to cast Counterspell, ensuring Randy's combo would go off without a hitch. Erik and Pete both were playing Mana Crypt combo decks compl[e]mented by the Power Nine. Afterwards, Randy and Erik discovered they were both going to attend the same qualifier, and decided to test together for the tournament.

Let us stop for a moment and appreciate the start of this journey. While I am sure there is some good-natured ribbing taking place here, Randy Buehler, he of Broken Jar and Blue Belcher—someone with the skull of Necropotence as his Twitter avatar—made the connection that would propel him to stardom at a Two-Headed Giant event.

This is Freddie Mercury getting his start on American Idol.

Heiss:

After the first semester came to a start at CMU in ’97, Randy, Erik, Mike, and Dan took a trek up to our strange and mysterious neighbor, Canada, to play in the illustrious GP Toronto. As it turned out, not a whole lot of people showed up for Toronto, and even less of them were good players. In fact, there was only one other group of high quality Magic players floating around the room, those of the team called Deadguy.

The Top 8 contained 3 out 4 of a rag-tag group of people who went to CMU. Naturally Deadguy started to converse with the gang, and eventually Tony Tsai said something along the lines of, "You guys should be called Team CMU," referring to the CMU hat that Randy wore (even though he was actually attending Graduate school at Pitt during that time). From that point and thenceforth, we were known as Team CMU.

Extended was a format established in 1997. It was designed to be larger than Standard (then known as Type 2) but with a more curated banned list than Legacy (then Type 1.5). Back in the day, any card on the Vintage (Type 1) Banned and Restricted list was banned in Legacy, which gave the format a codependent identity. Extended was a format that would have an independent list of disallowed cards. Extended would be undergo many changes over the years, switching from seven years of cards to the so-called Double Standard of four, eventually being supplanted at a professional level by Modern.

Extended was a format defined by access to the original dual lands, Lightning Bolt, and Swords to Plowshares. At the time, technology was kept close to the vest. With no Magic Online and a nascent Internet culture, it was entirely possible (and often happened) that teams could take tournaments by surprise with carefully protected decklists.

Heiss:

Extended ran through everyone's mind in the fall of 1997. The newly formed Team CMU struggled through the mysteries of play-testing at Cyert Hall. At the time, play-testing was still in somewhat of an artistic stage of development, and would not be broken down into a science for at least another year to come.

Everyone was happy because of the successes in testing, and everyone loved playing Magic. In testing, the deck with the strongest showing was Lauer-Potence. Of course, at the time, everyone simply called it Firestorm Necro or Necro-Fire. This version was preferred mostly because of the utility that Disenchant gave the deck, being that the Land Tax deck was another popular choice in Chicago. Erik decided not to play his own deck in order to give the team some balance, and chose Counter-Post as his deck instead.

Randy Buehler:

My first Pro Tour was Chicago ’97 and Team CMU spent a lot of time preparing for it. Three of us were making our PT debut (me, Mike Turian, and Dan Silberman) plus Erik Lauer was going to just his second. I for one wanted to make sure that if I didn’t do well, it was going to be because I just wasn’t good enough, not because I hadn’t done my homework. We went through a lot of decks, but the one that caught my eye (and kept it) was a 3-color Necro deck that Lauer had put together on the theory that Firestorm should be really good if you fuel it with the power of the skull. Erik’s other innovation was to put a full complement of 4 copies of Demonic Consultation into the deck. Looking back on it now it’s hard to believe that isn’t how they were always built, but people were afraid of Consult back in the day. Some people were afraid it would just deck them and so they didn’t play any. Others were convinced you never wanted to draw multiples because you surely wouldn’t be able to cast it twice. Personally I had been growing more and more fond of the card after I started Consulting for restricted cards in qualifiers. Sure there was a chance that my one Zuran Orb would be in the top 6 cards and I would immediately lose the game, but if I immediately won the game the other 80-something percent of the time then I was ok with those odds. When Erik proposed running all 4 I was game to try it out and we never seriously considered taking one out once we started play-testing.

Anyway, I tweaked and tested and tweaked and tested that Necro deck until I knew it inside and out. Late in testing we realized that since Hypnotic Specter had been banned there just wasn’t anything exciting to cast with a first turn Dark Ritual, plus the loss of card advantage could kill you if a Counterpost deck stopped whatever you sank your Ritual into, and so we took them all out. Meanwhile Disenchant seemed like a much better answer than Nevinyrral's Disk to all the Land Tax we expected to see. Disk was just too slow—most Necro decks ran Disks because they assumed they needed to blow up their own Necro in order to win, but not this one. With 4 Consults we could just assume that Necro would be in play and then we optimized the deck to work best after you were “potent.” Disk was too slow, as were all the expensive creatures other people were running (Nekrataal and Wildfire Emissary seemed like good creatures at first, but when you have all the cards you could want thanks to the skull, you just want them to be cheap so you can cast as many of them as possible.)

The rest, as they say, is history.

The Skull

It is impossible to separate Randy’s victory from the deck he piloted. His Necropotence deck, nicknamed LauerPotence after its creator—current Head Developer and former Pro Player Erik Lauer—was beautiful, shiny, and chrome. Lauer was somewhere between Jobs and Tesla—questioning long-held truths and exploiting their falsehood to find paths to victory.

Patrick Chapin:

Erik Lauer has contributed such an overwhelming amount it is tricky to figure out where to begin. One of the ways he is most famous is as a member of Team CMU where I had the honor to work alongside of him as well as Mike Turian Randy Buehler Aaron Forsythe Brian Schneider Andrew Cuneo and more. We would sit around at the "O" and discuss ideas laugh and have the sorts of conversations that help you realize why you are smarter as a result of them. Erik would say he benefited from the company he kept but there is no question we were all much better for it.

Lauer is responsible for so many deck-building techniques that we take for granted today that we won't possibly be able to do justice to his work with just this snapshot. However an effort must be made so let's start with Lauer's greatest love Necropotence.

Chapin:

There was a very proud moment for me back in Regionals 1997. It was the moment I won Lauer's respect. I didn't really know Erik at the time and was just some punk 16-year old kid but I showed up with a Necrodeck in an era when Fireblast had just been printed Winter Orb was popular and Black was widely regarded as unplayable. I was playing Black Knights Icequakes Stupors Serrated Arrows Disks Drain Life and other extensively mediocre cards but they were the best the format offered a format where not even Lauer dared play a Necro deck. He and I squared off in a later round Lauer armed with a U/W Control deck. I managed to defeat him as his strategy was very weak against Necro which had seemed so unplayable. I still remember him smiling telling me that my deck was his favorite and that he was impressed.

I did not realize it at the time but much of what my decks were based on was from discussions with Eric Taylor. Eric had studied Lauer's work extensively and shared the information with me. I must have looked pretty silly explaining to Lauer some of the choices made in my Necrodeck which were really just choices he had pioneered. Still Lauer just smiled and nodded.

Michael J Flores:

Positioning a deck for a particular tournament and succeeding there is the goal more than creating a deck with a fearsome reputation and sustained legacy throughout a format. This deck did both, while exploiting an almost incomparable single-tournament edge.

It is difficult to describe how innovative and important this deck was because so many of its features have become automatic for deck designers. The deck plays super-cheap mana costs—mostly one- and two-mana spells—so as to maximize the card advantage purely derived from Necropotence. It did not seek to generate card advantage any other way (no Nekrataals) . . . They were just too inefficient compared to Necropotence.

Buehler was a master of Firestorm play. He would typically Necro up extra just so he could brain his opponent with the Firestorm, recognizing that a delta of one life point on his part could equate to 5 or 6 damage as he discarded his hand. Most importantly this deck played four copies of Demonic Consultation. Every successful Trix deck that came after can thank Erik Lauer: the default number of Demonic Consultations to that point was between 0 and 2.

Sunday

Heiss:

Randy was the only other team member to make Day 2, with a less comfortable margin. However, once Randy started his matches on that second day, he literally plowed through the field, leaving a wake of startled players in his path. He went on to steal the top prize riveting the Magic community with an underdog victory. This act alone bought Team CMU instant respect and prestige in the Magic community, which is something the team was desperately looking for. Team CMU was no longer a rag-tag bunch of Pittsburgh players; they were something to be feared.

Alexander Shearer:

We've all had that experience of making a misplay that was far from subtle. You're focusing on some other aspect of the game—maybe that attack you just made—and you briefly go on autopilot and make a horrible misplay. It's especially easy to go fully on tilt at this point and cascade into failure for the rest of the match.

Buehler:

My PT wasn't won on a topdeck but the final play was in fact a surprise to pretty much everyone involved. I was up 2–1 with my three-color Necro deck against David Mills' W/U/R Control; however his turn two Dwarven Miner was causing me major issues in game 4. I had two basic Swamps but my other lands were two copies of Lake of the Dead.

I did have a Drain Life so in theory I could drop the Lake sac a Swamp to play the Lake sac another Swamp to power the Lake and generate enough mana to Drain Life the Miner for four. However if he had Force of Will he'd stop the Drain untap Miner away my Lake and I'd have literally no lands and no hope. So I declined that line of play on turn three and just played out a pump Knight hoping to draw a less risky answer.

What I drew instead were a bunch more pump Knights which I kept playing out going through the motions as I waited for a Frenetic Efreet and a Wildfire Emissary to kill me. I was mostly thinking about how many Terrors to bring in for game 5 when he surprised me a little bit by not putting the Miner in front of a pump Knight (and also not Bolting it) and instead going down to four. I'd been playing the whole game assuming he must have some form of permission but it was time to make him show me something. I dropped the Lake made 6 mana and announced "Drain Life for four."

David Mills stammering "Th-th-that works?" remains one of the happiest memories of my life. My response was an incredulous "You don't have a counterspell?!" followed immediately by "Oh my god I just won the Pro Tour!

For the record I played that Scrubland into the Miner on purpose. It had zero value in my hand so why not see if Mills messed up? (Or got overconfident which is what seems to have actually happened.)

Going Pro

Buehler:

I was a grad student looking to live the life of academia. I played Magic as a hobby and qualified for Pro Tour Chicago 1997, and won it. I went back to college and my professors asked me “How much money did you make? Do you know how much we make?” So I took a sabbatical and played on the Pro Tour, winning a bunch of money. I think I'm still technically on sabbatical.

After Chicago, Randy continued to perform at a high level. He won Grand Prix Atlanta in 1998 and had a Top 16 finish at Pro Tour Los Angeles. A twelfth-place finish at Worlds in 1998 closed out his 1996–1997 season. A tenth-place finish at the next Pro Tour Chicago, seventeenth at Pro Tour Rome, and nineteenth at Pro Tour Los Angeles saw Randy riding the crest of a wave. Then came Grand Prix Vienna.

There was a time when globetrotting to Grand Prix was a rare occurrence. Aside from Alex Shvartsman, few players made long trips to play in what have grown into mammoth affairs. It just was not done. Lauer found a diamond, and with Randy at his side, they bought the plane tickets that broke Magic.

Chapin:

While Lauer may have built the best broken deck at the most broken PT he also built the most broken deck in GP history the only deck to ever be so good that it prompted an emergency ban (a ban the week after the tournament instead of waiting until the banned/restricted list announcement). Ironically it was neither Lauer nor Buehler (who also top 4ed) who won the event but Kai Budde with High Tide. Still Wizards realized just how massive a breakdown of the game that Lauer had discovered and actually banned Memory Jar the very next week.

Flores:

To the best of my recollection, this is the only deck to have ever prompted an emergency ban of a card in the middle of a season.

Randy at the time (and years before the Players Club) was all over the international Grand Prix ("Randy Buehler makes Top 8 at more European Grand Prix than every other American attends, combined."). His teammate and play-test partner Erik Lauer was much less serious about the Pro lifestyle. However after a couple of play-test games with the Broken Jar deck, Erik realized he was leaving money on the table and went for a last-minute ticket to Vienna. The teammates finished 3rd and 4th and their creation was quickly eliminated.

Today when we think of developmental mistakes, there is often the resignation of having to live with them until the next set rotates in. In the wake of Combo Winter, there was no time to tiptoe. Megrim and Memory Jar proved an untenable combination. To save Magic and prevent another cycle of unstoppable combo decks, an emergency ban was enacted. Not even Treasure Cruise received that treatment.

Separate from the developmental mistake, let us look at this achievement. In recent memory, there have been two Grand Prix—San Diego, Oklahoma City—won with “rogue” decks. Yet, neither of these decks was an unknown quantity. Sphinx's Tutelage made an appearance at the previous Pro Tour, and Lantern Control made Top 16 at another Grand Prix. What Randy and Erik did simply cannot happen today—not with the instant connection of the web.

Randy had an excellent career. He performed well at Worlds, which gave the world a glimpse into the genius of Andrew Cuneo. While the deck came to be known as Buehler Blue, it was a Cuneo creation. It was because of his professional success that Randy would have the chance to shape Magic for years in Renton.

From The Ferrett:

Q: So seriously—how were you recruited for R&D in the first place, and what inspired you to go from the pro circuit to working for The Man? Was it the women? The song? The money?

A [Buehler]: I got to know Mark Rosewater and Skaff Elias fairly well from hanging out with them at Pro Tours when I was playing, and Mark seemed to think I might make a good developer. He recommended me to the Magic lead designer, Bill Rose, and Bill and I together for an interview at Origins '99. Bill basically said, "We'd like you to apply for this job." I answered, "Sure, but I'm not sure I'd take it—I don't know if I could give up playing."

But the more I thought about it, the better the job started to sound. I had been playing and traveling the world for two years at that point, and I was basically breaking even financially. I could pay the bills, but it wasn't the kind of thing you could do for a living. I was twenty-seven years old and I figured I had had my two years of fun, and some time soon I should look for an actual career.

His love of blue never faded. Even on the Vapor Ops test—a precursor to obtaining a job in development—his preferred mode of play could be discerned.

Buehler (on Lazy Goblin: r, 2/1, “Lazy Goblin can’t block.”):

We’ve talked about this before … red is not supposed to get really good weenie creatures. This would be red’s best weenie ever as “can’t block” is an almost meaningless drawback on an aggressively minded creature (and “Creature — Goblin” is a pretty powerful bonus too). This card would be unhealthy for constructed even if we printed it with an irrelevant creature type.

Randy was the Director of R&D and later the Vice-President of Digital Gaming. The shift from Magic development was not invisible. Still a voice of the Pro Tour, he went from understanding the lines of play that led to one of the most iconic calls in the history of the game . . . 

 . . . to not understanding how much damage a Doran, the Siege Tower carrying a Loxodon Warhammer would do:

In his role as Vice President of Digital Gaming, Randy helped to oversee Gleemax—a social network focused at Wizards’s core audience. Gleemax never took off, and it happened at a time when Magic was struggling. In the era that forced Wizards to focus on acquisition, Randy was one of many high-profile people let go in the wake of Gleemax and Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition at the end of 2008, a year after his Hall of Fame Induction.

Buehler (on leaving Wizards of the Coast):

Two reasons. First, while I was at Wizards, I got to actually do some work with Mind Control folks and I got blown away with just how good they are. They really have the ability to move quickly and bring new ideas to life. I was impressed by that.

The second reason is that I am personally very passionate about strategy games and I really wanted to work on new digital strategy games and that is something that Wizards had decided to move away from. Wizards is going to focus on its table top business and they are doing some digital extensions of their two big brands, Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons and Dragons, but in terms of new digital games, they’ve decided not to focus on that opportunity right now.

Unable to play in events due to his wife, Del Laugel, working as an editor at Wizards, he drifted away from being a public face of the game until being called back into the coverage booth. He maintained a relationship with Magic—serving as a stand-in on the 2009 Community Cup Team. When Wizards began to build up coverage, they tapped Randy to be a member of the broadcast team. An avid game-player, Randy was able to reclaim the knowledge and cadence from the Lightning Helix days. Today, Randy is once again one of the voices of the Pro Tour and is part of the coverage team helping to stream Grand Prix. His passion of streaming and competition led him to create the Vintage Super League and its offspring—Standard and Modern Super League. He contracts with Wizards to help maintain the Magic Online Legacy Cube. Once more, he is a public face of the game, elected to the Hall of Fame in 2007.

Paul Jordan:

The Hall of Fame standards, fairly or not, are skewed by Randy Buehler. Randy was a special case. He played in 12 PTs. He was electric. He only missed top 64 in 2 of those, with 5 top 16s and a win. His career was cut short by his decision to accept a job with Wizards. I believe his case to be the exception, and that had his career in Magic continued with the PT and not with its creation his numbers would have reflected his brilliance as a player. However, as I believe his case to be the exception, he creates a bit of a conundrum. Due to its brevity, his career is responsible for several of the HoF minimums. Specifically, # of Pro Tours, # of Pro Points, # of Top 8s, # of Top 64.

I truly do not mean this in any kind of negative fashion. I believe that had Randy continued playing on the Tour he would be responsible for more HoF Bests than Worsts. But that didn’t happen, and here we are. As such, I think it is fair when examining the careers of other potential Hall of Fame inductees to do so through a lens of a world without Randy’s abbreviated career. If other voters think differently, I respect that and encourage them to inspect the candidates however they see fit.

When we talk about Randy, we talk about one of the game’s greats. His statistics are concentrated by the brevity of his career.

To understand Randy’s greatness in a more general context, we must also understand the rhyme of the reason: Sandy Koufax. Koufax was a pitcher for the Dodgers (first of Brooklyn, then Los Angeles). Koufax was utterly dominant for the first half of his career, racking up three Cy Young awards (for best pitcher) and a Most Valuable Player award, bestowed on the best overall player in a given year. Koufax amassed these trophies in a span of three years. Shoulder injuries cut his career short, so he is missing on some of the marquee numbers for the Baseball Hall of Fame. For example, three hundred wins is considered to be a standard (think four or five Pro Tour Top 8s). Koufax only won one hundred sixty five games. In America, there is a mythos surrounding Sandy Koufax—the idea of what “could have been” had circumstances not intervened. It is as much this aura as it is his skills that draw parallels to Randy.

But what about Magic? Today’s game is different from the one Randy played years ago. Players will now routinely fly to foreign countries to compete in Grand Prix, their pursuit of Pro Points coming with frequent-flyer miles. There are fewer Pro Tours in a season today than in Randy’s era. In order to better understand what makes Randy a single-name entity, I looked at other competitors with some gaudy statistics in condensed time periods.

Brad Nelson won Player of the Year in 2010 for a season in which he made two Pro Tour Top 8s. He also had a ninth-place finish at Pro Tour Honolulu in 2009. In a comparable period of time to Randy, Nelson racked up more Top 8s and other strong finishes alongside a Player of the Year Title. Since that meteoric season, Brad has returned to earth. A consistent fixture on the Pro Tour, the once and future FFfreak has become a Standard savant. His career continues.

Gadiel Szleifer is not a household name anymore. In the mid-’00s, Gadiel was on a tear. In two seasons, he had three Pro Tour Top 8s including a win at Pro Tour Philadelphia. In a Top 8 that featured two members of the Hall of Fame, Gadiel had to take out Kenji Tsumura in the finals to secure his title. Szleifer was no slouch, and for a brief span of time, he was one of the brightest stars in American Magic.

Gadiel is no longer eligible for the Hall of Fame now that the pro-point threshold was raised to 150. Brad is added to the ballot in 2018.

Are they Hall of Famers? In short spans, they had careers that were at the very least similar to Randy, while also achieving more Pro Tour success.

Here, we start to see the context and better understand what makes Randy so special. He was taken from us. It is a trope to see a common human elevated to some supreme power. It is part of what makes characters like Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter endearing—they were exceptional. Randy’s rise is much the same. At the apex of his power, he was taken from the game.

This is not an attempt to diminish Randy’s skills. It is clear that his peers hold him in high regard and that if he continued to play professional Magic, he would rack up some gaudy numbers. But today, much of the myth is tied to the fact that he ascended to Renton, never to break jars again.

Randy is special in part because he is Randy Buehler. He was the first person to have a well-chronicled launch. He propelled himself immediately into the conversation of great by declaring, “I am here!” and never letting his foot off the pedal until he found a parallel track. Randy was a pioneer in that sense, laying the groundwork for other developers to follow.

He changed the game—not only the discussion around the very best, but the cards themselves. He was one of a kind.

He is the exception.

He is exceptional.


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