A Game of Inches, Worlds Report *22nd*

Monday, December 13th – Matt Sperling made a smart metagame decision for Worlds and played an Extended deck no one was expecting – Red Deck Wins. He was inches away from Top 8 and thousands of dollars, the biggest match of his life…

In order to draw into the Top 8 of the World Championships in the 18th and final round, I needed a record of thirteen wins and four losses. Going into the 17th round, I had twelve wins and four losses. The format was Extended, and my deck was Red Deck Wins:

In round 17, I’m paired against Christopher Wolf,
pictured here,

who’s playing 4-Color Cruel Control. If I Top 8, I win somewhere between $8,000-$45,000, plus I get to Level 6, which means appearance fees and a free flight to Paris or Japan next year. Basically, this is a $15,000+ ante match, the biggest match of my life.

I win game 1, dealing the final points of damage with my one maindeck Koth of the Hammer. In game 2, Wolf plays a turn 1 or 2 Pithing Needle naming Koth, but I don’t have one in hand. Eight turns later, I have two turns to draw anything that deals two damage (basically the whole deck), and I draw land… and then Koth. I have a Leyline of Punishment in play, too, boarding two in just in case there were any Baneslayer Angels in Wolf’s sideboard. If the Leyline or the Koth were anything else, I’d have made Top 8 at Worlds.

“You find out life’s this game of inches, so is football. Because in either game – life or football – the margin for error is so small. I mean, one-half a step too late or too early and you don’t quite make it. One-half second too slow, too fast, and you don’t quite catch it. The inches we need are everywhere around us. They’re in every break of the game, every minute, every second. On this team, we fight for that inch. On this team, we tear ourselves and everyone else around us to pieces for that inch. We claw with our fingernails for that inch. Because we know when add up all those inches, that’s gonna make the f***ing difference between winning and losing! Between living and dying!” —Any Given Sunday

In game 3, I mulligan on the play into a playable, but slow-ish, six-card hand and never get him lower than about seven life after using all my cards.

“The dream is over,
What can I say?
The dream is over,
I was dreamweaver,
But now I’m reborn,
I was the walrus,
But now I’m John,
And so dear friends,
You just have to carry on,
The dream is over.”
-John Lennon

So that’s the story of round 17; what about the four losses earlier in the tournament or the twelve wins for that matter? Inches. At 7-1 in round 9, I attack my opponent down to six life, with Exsanguinate and a land in my hand for lethal Fireballs next turn. His board is Rusted Relic, Saberclaw Golem, Sylvok Lifestaff, and I’m at ten life. I have two chump blockers ready to block and seal the win, a Glint Hawk and a Moriok Reaver. My opponent untaps, thinks for a second or two, and casts Fulgent Distraction to tap my two blockers and attack for ten lethal damage.


To keep the proper perspective though, we have to understand that just as games slip through our fingers, others are held onto by the slightest of margins when we win. To beat Simon Gortzen in draft, I needed to have a big Exsanguinate in games 1 and 2, and I had it both games. That’s what makes Magic such a great game. The close ones. If I don’t play very aggressively with a Tumble Magnet to get Gortzen within range, it won’t even matter if I have the Exsanguinate. If Christopher Wolf had played poorly and missed a couple of damage, or Pithing Needled Arid Mesa, I wouldn’t have needed to draw a non-Koth damage source on the last turn; he’d be dead. I claw with my fingernails for that inch, and if I come up short, my disappointment is mitigated by the satisfaction of knowing I left everything I had on the battlefield.

How I Picked my Standard Deck

The night before Day 1, which is six rounds of Standard, I thought I was going to play the Caw-Go deck that Kibler, Brad, and Corey played (in fact, I was to be the fourth member of the squadron), but I just couldn’t get confident with the deck through testing against Valakut and Vampires, and if I wasn’t confident in those matchups, I didn’t like my chances. I’d been playing with and against the B/R Vamps and Valakut decks, so when I decided to last-minute switch, I knew I’d just pick one of those Tier 1 known decks that we had been tuning and run with it. Noah Boeken was in the same hotel room and in the same quandary. He also was choosing between B/R Vamps and Valakut and had borrowed the cards for both decks from Dave Williams and Efro. Since I liked both decks, I made it simple; I told Noah whichever deck he chose, I’d register and play the other. He chose B/R Vamps, and so I played Valakut in Worlds.

Six rounds later and I sat at 5-1, my only loss being to Efro’s B/R Vamps deck after he got a near-flawless draw game 3 of our match. Am I happy Noah chose B/R Vamps? Sure, but I really felt that either deck had a good chance to do well, and the I had confidence to capitalize on that chance.

Conley Woods Carries the Pads

Dave Williams, Efro, Conley, and I were just leaving a restaurant with some leftovers. By way of background, my first Pro Tour was in 2001, Dave’s was well before that, and Efro’s was either just before or shortly after, so we’ve all been at this a while. Meanwhile, Conley is just a handful of PTs in. Dave and Efro decided to make Conley carry their leftovers (as a joke), and when Conley mumbled some objection, we all
informed him of the story of what happened to rookie Dez Bryant when he refused to carry a veteran teammate’s pads,
recounted here.

Conley grabbed the leftovers, and we headed home.

The Best Magic Video Nobody Has Seen

The following interview from 1997 between Mark Rosewater and Tommi Hovi is priceless. With this kind of star power, I don’t how ESPN2 ever dropped Magic from its broadcasts.

The Best Magic Video Everyone Has Seen

Part 1:

Part 2:

Why I Played Red Deck Wins in Extended

New formats are common at the Pro Tour level (it’s meant to showcase new formats and test the deckbuilding skills of the participants), but even at the FNM or PTQ level, new formats arrive with the release of new sets, and so you will, from time to time, find yourself playing in uncharted formats. Extended for Worlds was one such uncharted format. Several known decks were on everyone’s radar, like Fae, Jund, and Cruel Control. Prismatic Omen + Valakut was a known combo, and other decks like Elves and Merfolk were known to be fringe players that could possibly be very popular depending on how many teams decided they were strongest. The more I talked to people, the more I felt like no one expected Mono-Red, and no one was trying hard enough to be resistant to Mono-Red.

Red Deck Wins fails under several scenarios. If the combo decks are faster than its clock, it can rarely interact with the combo, so it will lose. If the other players all expect and respect Red, they’ll play dedicated hate cards that are hard to beat like Kor Firewalker. If the control decks are configured in a way that accounts for the possibility of getting burned to death, they may have an advantage against Red. One of the recurring themes here is that the less it’s expected, the better it will do. Seems obvious, and yet many people scoffed when I suggested Red Deck Wins.

The combo decks in Chiba weren’t really faster than Red Deck Wins (or they had weakness to burn if they took the Fauna Shaman or Elf form), people used generic hate like Finks and Forge-Tender rather than dedicated hate like Firewalker, and the control decks were configured to beat slower decks and were vulnerable to unearth creatures. All the tribal decks would essentially be byes. Forge-Tender isn’t enough to beat me if I make sure to include enough Arc Trail/Volcanic Fallout/Searing Blaze-type cards (it only stops one of them) and a few red Leylines.

Even though no one I talked to would switch to Red Deck Wins, and I’d be battling alone with the deck, I didn’t let that shake my confidence. I needed to 5-0 with the deck, and I felt like I could do it. I came up two damage short.

The Cost of Playing Poker (or Magic?)

In recent days, I’ve been playing poker instead of drafting, and my money drafts with local LA fellow poker players haven’t been firing for whatever reason, so I let myself get rusty in Scars Draft. My 3-3 in draft at Worlds took the wind out of the sail of my Constructed success, and I now really regret that missed practice.

Chapin likes to say that (paraphrasing) the cost of playing poker is that ever hour you spend doing it is less experience doing something else. In other words, instead of learning how to sell things, how to buy things, how to network, how to make people laugh, how to write, or what you’re really meant to do in life, you learn how to extract an extra buy-in or big bet from the degenerate gamblers seated around you at the table. In the past few months, one of my opportunity costs from playing poker was experience drafting Scars of Mirrodin.

While we’re on the subject, do these same opportunity costs apply to Magic? Yes and no, I’d argue. I think that Magic requires more creativity and is more social than poker, such that the cost of not engaging in other enterprises and becoming an expert elsewhere is somewhat mitigated. Also, because Magic remains fun much longer than poker does, it can actually be your hobby, whereas poker almost always turns into a ‘job’ after you log enough hours playing it.

However, even though Magic is a better game than poker, the old cliché about trying to become the best in the world at a children’s card game is true. At the end of the day, it’s just a game. So what’s the take-home point here? For me, it’s that to make Magic worthwhile, I need to make and maintain enough friendships, have enough fun, and practice enough skills such as networking and writing, to get a return on my investment of time. So far so good.