On Stephen Speck, Deck Attribution, and Identity

summer bloom art

Hi all,

Some of these thoughts have been ruminating in my head for a long time, and with this past Pro Tour lousy with controversy, game losses, and outright cheating, I wanted to share some with you. This is not an article about Modern, or even about strategy or design of Magic: The Gathering. It is more of a warning and advice about how to approach the game.

The majority of last year’s Best Movie Oscar nominees seemed to have a common thread running through them. In order to avoid spoilers, I’ll stick only to what I know from previews. In Whiplash, we have a boy who psychotically beats through his drumset during practice and breaks off from his girlfriend in order to be great. Michael Keaton’s character in Birdman wants to get back in the limelight and is driven insane by his past greatness; the character he used to play tells him to do things. The Office’s beloved Steve Carrell plays a man who, innocently enough, wants his family’s ranch to be the national wrestling team’s training site. This drive eventually corrupts him, and we see him carry a gun into a gym.

This debilitating desire seems to pop itself up in the Magic community as well.

At Pro Tour: Dragons of Tarkir, there was a lot of discussion over Patrick Chapin playing two lands in a turn and failing to resolve [c]Ajani, Mentor of Heroes[/c] correctly. He placed a creature card in his hand before placing the three other cards on the bottom of his library, and he did not reveal [c]Tasigur, the Golden Fang[/c] as the planeswalker stated he must. This has gotten a lot of discussion because Chapin is a hall of fame player, and this is a high stakes event.

What hasn’t gotten quite as much discussion is what happened with Stephen Speck. Perhaps this is because of the name disparity, or perhaps it is because the incident was not featured on camera. In fact, I only have accounts from Twitter as to what happened. Here is a vague but official statement from Wizards.

What accounts from players at the Pro Tour suggest is that Speck offered 53 cards to his opponent and had 7 cards aside ready to stack on top of the deck once his opponent finished shuffling and cutting. Where Wizards says that Speck had a “plausible” opening ready elsewhere, players present say instead that he had a “perfect” opening seven ready to go.

So while some may say, “Good, he got disqualified, and we’re all square,” we must remember that Speck has been gaining a lot of traction lately by performing well in Modern tournaments with Bloom Titan. This deck is capable of broken openings that kill the opponent on turn one, even on the draw and through a piece of disruption. Many players, including myself, have been hoping for a ban of [c]Summer Bloom[/c] because the deck breaks the fundamental Modern turn four rule. Proponents of Bloom Titan, mostly its grinders, say that winning before turn four is the exception, and it requires a god-hand.

Well, Speck had a lot of these god-hands in his career, and five of them came at Grand Prix Omaha. After reading about his disqualification, I remembered reading a GP Omaha report where a Merfolk player lost a match to Speck that guaranteed his entry into the Top 8. Here is the report of the match.

So now we have evidence that Speck is manipulating his opening hands, and he is playing a deck with 1 [c]Simian Spirit Guide[/c] that, because of the spirit monkey, can produce turn 1 kills, and we see that he was able to do this a number of times in one event.

I question this. I’m no mathematician, but I know he beat the odds.

Because the news traveled primarily via the Twitter medium, many viewed Speck’s account with tweets dating back in February. These words stood out to me the most:

“I’m about to get [The Bloom Titan] deck banned.”


Speck wanted to be the guy who took a rogue deck and broke the format with it. It’s good to be discovered, to have notoriety, and in that way, achieve a sense of fame. And when you place your sense of fulfillment, satisfaction, and even identity in such a niche aspect of a card game, some weird things are going to happen. Things may not go to plan, and your sense of self depends on cheating.


People may read this and think it’s getting a little flimsy. After all, Speck may not have cheated. There is a fraction of a percent of likelihood that, as he argued at Pro Tour: Dragons of Tarkir, the seven cards placed elsewhere while his opponent shuffled and cut his deck were “an unfortunate mistake.” Maybe no such unfortunate mistakes happened during his successful run with Bloom Titam, and maybe he never intentionally placed seven card, turn-one-game-winning hands on top of his deck.

So I’ll approach this from another angle. Have you ever looked at a Magic forum regarding a breakout deck? Often, there are a number of users that want to claim authorship of that deck. The most hostile environment like this that I can recall took place over the discussion of who created Izzet Blitz, Eye Candy, Wee Fiend, or the [c]Kiln Fiend[/c], [c]Nivix Cyclops[/c] combo deck in Pauper. Before the printing of [c]Nivix Cyclops[/c], a feeble iteration of the deck had existed with [c]Wee Dragonauts[/c] in its place. Wizards handed the community a treat, and like dogs, they scrapped for the treat at its best. There are as many people who claim to have created the deck as there are absurd titles for it.

Again, people want to be immortalized over this game. It’s a crazy good game, and there is such a community around it. But still, when a player looks for fulfillment in it, they start to act bizarre.

Players hit print screen and time stamp their posts whenever they come up with an idea. Even if the combo is fairly intuitive and an initial reaction to a card’s printing, they want to be the ones whose names are tagged beside it, and they want the name they gave the deck to be the name by which it is called. Names will be called, shots will be fired, and no one will achieve the fulfillment they desired.

The pros and content developers that actually are known for innovations teach us that it is not a goal worth aspiring to and fighting for to have your name tagged by a deck. If you follow Travis Woo on his Facebook page, you will see approximately bi-monthly musings on leaving the game, his stream, his articles, and other aspects of Magic. Conley Woods gets burned out from Magic. These are two of the most highly regarded deckbuilders in terms of innovations that the community can provide, and if you read between the lines, you will see “Being known for innovation and card-breaking isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”

Here’s all I can say really: Take care of your family. Love people. Look for hope in this world. Treat people kindly. At the end of everything, you can find satisfaction and relief in these things. They won’t warp you into a cheater, a person who lashes out at others, a rager, and all these stereotypes that exist in the community. Instead, they will be stable and let you exercise more creative efforts that can get you further in the game than an obsession over one combo, interaction, or rogue build ever could.

Good luck, have fun.