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Jeff Zandi is a five time pro tour veteran who has been playing Magic since 1994. Jeff is a level two DCI judge and has been judging everything from small local tournaments to pro tour events. Jeff is from Coppell, Texas, a suburb of Dallas, where his upstairs game room has been the "Guildhall", the home of the Texas Guildmages, since the team formed in 1996. One of the original founders of the team, Jeff Zandi is the team's administrator, and is proud to continue the team's tradition of having players in every pro tour from the first event in 1996 to the present.


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The Southwestern Paladin

Tales of the Texas Guildmages
Teamwork is What It’s All About

by Jeff Zandi  - 3.11.05

On Tuesday night, the Texas Guildmages will meet at my house for the team’s 400th weekly practice/meeting. Where has the time gone? We will celebrate our 400th meeting, nearly ten years of playing together almost every single week at the same time and place, with a trivia contest and a fun tournament that I will tell you more about next Friday when the dust has settled. Since we started practicing together around the time of Pro Tour Dallas in late 1996, the roll that originally included seven players has grown into a lifetime list of twenty-four names. The group did not necessarily have all the same goals in mind back then. Some players wanted badly to make it to the Pro Tour, others were more interested in the social scene that we created together. Every player that has joined our practices over the years has brought something to the mix. In the end, though, teamwork is what it’s all about.


In January, 1996, several of our little Friday night Magic group received the postcard from Wizards of the Coast announcing the
“Million Dollar Black Lotus Tour” and the five events that would be a part of the tour. At the time, the group was me, my best friend Kent, and a married couple that both played Magic, Ken Warrix and Dawn Fontaine. My wife, Willa, would tag along just to be sociable, but she had no interest in playing the game, though she thought it was interesting enough. She had tagged along to a few Friday night role-playing game sessions before Magic came along and it was pretty hard to out-geek the goofy hobbies she had already seen me take up. Dawn Fontaine tried in vain to get on the list for Pro Tour New York in January, 1996. It was CRAZY…all you had to do to qualify was to call in and get on the list. The list was now full, and none of us were on it. Of course, Dallas’ own George Baxter made the top eight and was immortalized in cardboard along with the other top eight finishers of Magic’s first Pro Tour.

On April 6, the first official qualifiers for the Pro Tour came to Texas.
Texas’ first PTQ took place as a side event of a big comic book convention.
There were 105 players. The format was the same enhanced Type II format that was used at Pro Tour New York, in which you had to have a number of cards in your deck or sideboard from every set legal at that time. I got my second loss of the day in round three against Bryan Sammon, a uber-geeky teen that would soon be one of the best junior players in the game. Minh Huynh took one of the two seats for Pro Tour Los Angeles that day. We had begun playing together after meeting at a place called Virtual World where you played Battletech in these incredible cockpit simulations. He worked there and we would talk about Magic between Battletech games. Soon, I was running into Minh at tournaments around the area, where he was usually finishing at the top. After winning the seat for Pro Tour Los Angeles, he drove straight over to my house to tell me about it. I had left the tournament with a 3-3 record, a couple of rounds before it was actually over.

Minh did extremely well at Pro Tour Los Angeles (actually held in Long Beach aboard the Queen Mary) finishing in the money around 40th place. He had finished high enough to be automatically qualified for the next event, Pro Tour Columbus, which would take place July Fourth weekend. Minh was extremely busy at the time working as one of the primary aides for the U.S.
Senate campaign of his former high school teacher. No kidding! Minh gave me the task of working on a good deck design for Pro Tour Columbus, which we would travel to together, even if I wasn’t qualified myself. Around this time, Minh and I were starting to get to know the rest of our team’s original members. Cortney Cunningham and I were playing Magic at a small game shop in Lewisville called Buster and Crabbies. There, we ran into James Stroud and his roommate Marcus Trevino, along with future Guildmages like Jeremy Simmons and Chad Jones. Minh soon introduced me to Scot Martin and James Murphy at Games Galore in Arlington. At the time, Games Galore in Arlington, Texas, and Game Chest in Dallas were the two biggest stores in the area when it came to tournaments and individual Magic cards. Game Chest had a tournament every Saturday and Games Galore played tournaments on Saturday also but eventually more on Sunday. Both stores gave away a Mox virtually every weekend to their main tournament winner. Minh Huynh was filling up multiple pages in his card binder with Moxes he was winning at these tournaments.

Soon, there were a bunch of us traveling from Dallas/Fort Worth to play in tournaments all over Texas as well as Oklahoma and even Arkansas. We weren’t really thinking about forming a team yet, but we were starting to practice together all the time, Saturdays at someone’s apartment if there wasn’t already a good tournament going on, Tuesday or Wednesday night at my house.
Pretty soon, everyone’s weekly schedule was very full of Magic. The week started with Tuesday nights practicing at my house. On Wednesday night, a bunch of us were practicing or playing some kind of little tournament at Buster and Crabby’s. On Friday nights, we were often getting on the road towards wherever the Pro Tour qualifier was. Saturday would be the day the PTQ was actually played. Sunday at noon, we would all be right back at Games Galore for another constructed tournament.

Meanwhile, Minh did play at Pro Tour Columbus, but didn’t do well since he hadn’t been able to play much in the preceding couple of months as he was constantly on the road with his Senate candidate. Scot Martin DID do well at PT Columbus, finishing 21st and in the money in his first Pro Tour event. For some reason, none of us managed to qualify for the Atlanta Pro Tour.
When the Pro Tour circus headed for Dallas in the Fall of 1996, players were beginning to group themselves into teams.

George Baxter led the way in the development of Magic teams in Texas. In the summer of 1996, he created his Team Dallas by holding a series of tournaments. After all of George’s team-builder tournaments were complete, he took the best seven overall finishers to create his team. Baxter’s goal was to have eight players that would work together with the specific goal of developing the abilities of every player on the team. George wanted EVERY player on his team to reach the Pro Tour. Within a year, he would complete this goal when Cary Darwin, the last player on his original team without Pro Tour experience, qualified for Pro Tour Chicago in Fall 1997. George Baxter was both loved and hated around the area at the time for his vise-like grip on local tournaments. Still, more than forty players tried out for his team.

The seven players that made up the original Team Dallas included Jason Twitty, Cary Darwin, Bryan Sammon, Jeremy Baca, Trey Kerrigan, Dave Ferguson and Nathan Manuel. The eighth place finisher from Baxter’s series of team building tournaments was yours truly. Even though George and I became friends and played together plenty of times from that point on, I knew that I wanted to be on a team, and in order to be on a Magic team, I was going to have to build one myself.


By the time November and Pro Tour Dallas rolled around, we had eight players that worked together almost every week. It was me, Minh Huynh, Cortney Cunningham, James Stroud, Jason Page, James Jenkins, James Murphy and Scot Martin. We got along great together, which is extremely important when you are traveling together on long road trips almost every weekend. Everyone liked playing together and working together on deck designs, but not everyone was sure that we needed to be an official team with t-shirts and secret handshakes and all the rituals that might go along with that. Of course, these were exactly the people that rolled their eyes mightily at the prospect of coming up with a name for our team.

I would ask people to come up with team names, the guys would nod their heads absently and repeatedly fail to come up with anything at all. Pretty soon, I started each meeting by presenting the team with a list of team names. Each week, each player in attendance would pick one of the team names. At the end of six weeks, the team name with the most votes would be the winner. Texas Guildmages was the eventual winner, beating out such entries as Knight School, Knight Shift and D.A.M.A.G.E, which stood for Dallas Area Magic And Gaming Enterprise. Lame or genius? YOU decide. Yeah, I agree with you…all the way lame!

The simple fact that I told the guys over and over was this: there is NO SUCH THING as a good or clever team name. There are only silly names that can BECOME good team names once the team they are attached to becomes worthwhile. “Yankees” is not the world’s coolest name for a baseball team, but the New York Yankees have earned their reputation as the best club in the history of baseball. There’s nothing clever about naming a football team from Dallas “the Cowboys” or a team from Pittsburgh “the Steelers”. Team names only become cool when you like the team. Team Dallas? Completely crappy name, but there was no arguing with the skill of George Baxter and his boys.


Jason Page was a college Frat King at University of Texas at Arlington. He was our team’s first “rock star”, dazzling everyone at tournaments and local restaurants alike with his good looks and crazy antics. He was also a very good Magic player. Starting with Jason Page, our team would ALWAYS have a pretty boy front man. Jason Page became the “hero” of this high school kid that starting hanging around Games Galore named David Williams. Soon, Page quit Magic and Dave Williams became our new “rock star” and the first player added to our original team. A year or so later, our team managed to pull the best player from Arlington’s Team Reaper. The charismatic (he’ll be played by Leonardo DiCaprio if there was a movie…) Bil Payne soon became the 13th Guildmage, joining us in large part because of his relationship with Dave Williams. As Williams became too busy with the Pro Tour to hang out with the team quite as much, Bil Payne stepped directly into Dave’s spotlight on the team. Besides body piercing and lots of Magic ability, each of these unique personalities brought gigantic charisma and style to the tournaments they dominated. They were our biggest stars, and they shined brightly enough! A year or so ago, with Bil Payne stepping away from Magic, another Dave Williams prodigy was there to fill the spotlight. This time, it was Brent Kaskel, whom Williams groomed into stardom at Rama Llama comics in Plano, Texas, the best Magic store in the area for nearly two years.


The Texas Guildmages don’t have an official team charter hanging on a wall somewhere. No one on the team has ever been particularly interested in keeping track of the team’s statistics except for me. We managed to get some cool looking t-shirts and a partial sponsorship from Games Galore in Arlington. That was a long time ago. The real point of the team was AND IS to provide a consistent live forum for working on the goal of reaching the Professional Tour. This is the one goal that we have managed to stay true to for ten years. Several of the team’s original members were already great Magic players when we first got together including Minh Huynh, Scot Martin, James Murphy and James Jenkins (the only one of us to play in Pro Tour New York in 1996). For James Stroud, Cortney Cunningham and myself, the team provided a way to improve our playing skills. James Stroud used to hate the idea that there were constructed deck archetypes, he thought that playing a deck that someone else had designed was pointless and pretty close to cheating. James was very wary of deck construction “rules” that were beginning to really define the competitive Magic game. Back then, you could count on every James Stroud deck to be completely original, and you could count on it to fail. Stroud learned to embrace deck construction principles and conventions and soon became a Pro Tour regular, almost reaching the top eight of the Tokyo World Championships. Cortney Cunningham was a quick study and qualified for his first Pro Tour, PT Chicago in 1997, one month before I became the last original Texas Guildmage to qualify for the Pro Tour. Cary Darwin of Team Dallas and I had a $20 bet that we would get to the Pro Tour before the other did. Cary also qualified for Pro Tour Chicago in 1997, just a month before I qualified for Pro Tour Mainz.

Teammates help each other. One weekend, there were only three of us willing to travel all the way to Lubbock, Texas, to play in one of the Mad Hatter’s PTQs (yes, on his driver’s license it actually says The Mad Hatter). Lubbock was about six hours away at the time (the drive time may be different now, with new speed limits and road construction and things of that nature). Just about the three biggest guys on the team, James Stroud, Cortney Cunningham and myself, piled into my extended cab Ford pickup truck for the long journey. By height, Stroud was the tallest of the three of us at 6’8” and I was the shortest at 6’2”. By weight, Stroud was probably the lightest of the three of us at 250 pounds, I was probably the heaviest at about a biscuit past 300 pounds. Cortney was 6’3” or so and ran just a little under 300 back then. It was a pickup truck full of meat any way you look at it. Cortney and I failed to make the top eight of that PTQ, but James Stroud walked out of the Lubbock Ramada with his first PTQ win. Cortney and I walked out of the tournament with one of Hatter’s vinyl Pro Tour banners! The ride home was bittersweet, listening to Stroud crow about his tournament win while Cortney and I tried to be good friends. For some reason, this PTQ was held on Sunday, and it was nearly dawn on Monday morning when we made it back to Dallas. In the Fall of 1997, while trying to qualify for Pro Tour Mainz (Germany), we again packed three giant fat men into my 1994 Ford pickup.

This time, joining James Stroud and myself was James Jenkins (originally from Baltimore, where he has since returned after two or three years with us in Dallas). James was 6’5” and almost as wide. At one point in the five hour trip from Dallas to Little Rock, Arkansas, Stroud chose to leave the crowded interior of the truck’s extended cab for the wide open (but windy) bed of the pickup. This time, it was Stroud that failed to make the top eight. I made it to the finals of the top eight by narrowly defeating this really cool Arkansas kid who had this Cajun accent. This was none other than Neil Reeves, who would go on to great things in the Pro Tour before winding up in Dallas, where we got him on our team just in time for him to largely give up Magic in favor of big money poker. After getting past Reeves, I found myself in the finals with my teammate James Jenkins. Jenkins wanted to win the tournament as much as I did, but he wasn’t completely excited about the expense of traveling to Germany and, since he knew that I had not yet been to the Pro Tour, Jenkins conceded to me in the finals. I was so thrilled that I did all the driving for the five hours back to Dallas, hardly getting sleepy at all. A year later, I was completely thrilled to do the same favor for Bil Payne when he and I had reached the final match in a Dallas PTQ. It was a great feeling to step aside and give a teammate like Bil the opportunity to play in his first Pro Tour event.


Over time, the team added new players almost every year in order to keep around eight active players on the team at all times. Even the most serious Magic players burn out. I’ve watched this happen on our team many times.

I’ve watched the comeback attempts, too. They rarely work out. Once you get too far away from the competitive Magic grind, it is incredibly hard to give the game that kind of devotion again. When you have a month full of meetings come and go with only a couple of players each week, I start to wonder if I could have done something better with all the time and devotion that I have spent on this game. Sometimes, me and the other survivors talk about why we still do this.

It always comes down to the team.

Teamwork is what it’s all about.

Of course, I’m always interested in hearing what YOU think.

Jeff Zandi
Texas Guildmages
Level II DCI Judge
Zanman on Magic Online


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