So there I was, vegetating on my bed, reminiscing the last month I spent on the road. I was finally home in my own room after four weeks on the road
grinding StarCityGames.com Opens, and I was spent. I was homesick and tired and seriously contemplating not going to the Grand Prix in Dallas. There
was a two-week lull in the Open Series, and I felt I deserved a break from traveling and playing cards. A few friends concurred that I should just use
the two weeks to relax and recharge my batteries for when the Open Series resumed.
I usually make it a priority to attend every reasonable North American Grand Prix, especially Constructed ones, but I just wasn’t feeling it this time.
It was then that I remembered Grand Prix Seattle a few years ago, when five Faeries decks made Top 8. I regretted not going, as the format was
Standard, and I felt so prepared for the Faeries mirror match that I could have won the whole damn thing!
That was the past though. I found myself in a similar situation now, feeling like I knew so much about the format and my trusty RUG deck. I couldn’t
stand not being qualified for the Pro Tour anymore, watching my friends qualify one by one, and while I was proud of them, I felt that I deserved my
chance too. If I skipped this Grand Prix, I’d be doing myself a disfavor by eliminating another chance for me to use my experience and skills with RUG,
and with Standard in general, to qualify. I was exhausted and tired from traveling thousands of miles, but I was even more exhausted and tired of
hearing “Are you qualified for the Pro Tour, Alex?” or “Man, when are you gonna Q?” I was making a name for myself on the StarCityGames.com Open
Series, but I had yet to play on Magic: The Gathering’s biggest stage…
Grand Prix Dallas/Fort Worth started off like any other GP. I showed up sometime Friday afternoon and durdled around while seeing many of my friends. I
had two byes, so I figured I’d try and get a third. Couldn’t hurt, right? I lost round two of the grinder to my good friend Lewis Laskin playing
Caw-Blade. I had fetched up a Mountain with a Scalding Tarn when I had two Halimar Depths in play for blue sources, and then he played back-to-back
Tectonic Edges on them 🙁
I lost that game without blue mana, and I ended that match scratching my head. Was I still misplaying this badly with RUG? If I couldn’t play optimally
or even close to optimally with a deck I’d been playing every week since last year, how was I going to tackle this Grand Prix? I decided I had to shake
it off as a fluke and focus playing tomorrow and hopefully on Sunday…
It’s Mother’s Day weekend 2008. I’m seventeen years old and going to my first non-PTQ event ever. There are back-to-back StarCityGames.com Opens in
Richmond, Virginia, and it’s the first time I’ve ever traveled so far outside of New York to play Magic. I bring Faeries because it’s what I’ve been
playing locally at Neutral Ground (R.I.P.) for around a month, and I felt I was decent at playing it, since I was winning tons of packs at the store.
I’m nervous about the size of the event and the fact I have to play nine whole rounds before Top 8. I’m not trying to make a name for myself. I’m not
trying to win the whole thing. I’m just there to have a good time, play some Faeries, and maybe beat some Virginians.
I win the whole tournament. Yeah, I beat Faeries, Elves, Wizards, Land Destruction, and the works to win my first competitive event. So why not show up
tomorrow and run it back? Well, I guess it was a good call, since I just win that event too using 73 of the same cards.
Fun Fact: I beat an unsuspecting Gerry Thompson and Ben Wienburg in that Top 8. Some random kid from New York wins both events at StarCityGames.com
first back-to-back Open weekend. Cool story, bro. Maybe we’ll see more from him eventually…
It’s early 2003, and I’m twelve years old. I go to my local candy store in rural New York where I clean up shop at most of the Yu-Gi-Oh tournaments.
“Gimme some packs, man.”
The owner replies, “Hey, Alex, we don’t have any more Yu-Gi-Oh packs in stock right now. Somebody bought a bunch yesterday…” I’m bummed, but I’m sure
he’ll have some more when I come back another day. “…But hey, you can always try buying some of these…” He holds up a pack of Magic: The Gathering
I’m in eighth grade, and at my middle school, some kids play Yu-Gi-Oh, and some kids play this other card game with “lands” and “mana.” Well, I have
like ten bucks in my pocket still, so I decide, sure, I’ll buy a pack of these Magic cards. I get in the car. I open the pack. I skim through the
fifteen cards in it. Aven Redeemer … Echo Tracer … Beacon of Destiny … hmm. Okay well, the artwork is really nice. I read every word on every card,
including the artist credits. I decide that I want to have a friend teach me how to play…
It’s April 9, 2011, day one of Grand Prix Dallas.
I have two byes and decide it’s time to do a Cube draft with some of my lucky friends. I manage to draft a good mono-red deck while sitting next to
Owen Turtenwald. He’s a tricky fellow to Cube draft next to. He’s known to draft insane U/x decks or just crush with mono red. He decided to draft mono
red on my right this time, and how I got the sick deck I did baffles me. If you want to do well at a Grand Prix, then draft mono red in my cube during
your byes (apparently).
Rounds three, four, and five I sat down in front of unknown opponents. All three of them were playing U/W Caw-Blade. I beat them all 2-1 after three
terrible game threes. My first opponent kept a hand with no blue; the next kept with no white; for the last game three, he kept with two lands and
never got a third.
Round six at 5-0, I played against Christian Keeth, who I knew was playing Valakut. This is a tough matchup because they ramp just as fast as, if not
faster than, RUG, and I have no real answers to a resolved Primeval Titan. I won game one when he punted and played the wrong land, which may have
ended up costing him the entire match. Game two, he topdecked a Titan and crushed me. Game three, I won with Avenger of Zendikar and Flashfreeze
Round seven I played a RUG mirror and felt that I played it super tight. I stuck to my traditional sideboard for the RUG mirror which is… wait for it…
NOTHING! If you’re on the play, you can take out the Oracle of Mul Daya for a Deprive, but that’s about it. No Flashfreeze, no Tumble Magnet. Not much
Round eight, I played a very close match against U/W Caw-Blade. Game one, I was at eight life, and I got killed for exactly lethal by a Celestial
Colonnade equipped with Sword of Feast and Famine and a follow-up Mortarpod hitting me for two. I feel as though I punted this game because I played
the last two turns too cautiously. If I played my Avenger of Zendikar earlier, perhaps I could’ve won that game. Games two and three were also very
close, but I pulled them out.
For the final round of day one, I was paired against Michael Jacob, someone I consider to be one of the game’s top competitors. It was a RUG mirror
match against the archetype’s innovator, and while I feel I’ve had a significant influence on the RUG deck in general, Michael Jacob innovations and
work on it are second to none. We played a close match that went to game three, which I took down.
With that, I was undefeated on day one of the Grand Prix! It was a first for me, going into day two of a GP without a single loss. Each round I played
went to game three, but I didn’t let it rattle me, and I was ready to get some rest for a very important day two…
PTQ. It’s just three little letters. They stand for “Pro Tour Qualifier.” In a PTQ, there is really just one goal: first place. I’ve played in roughly
60 PTQs between real life and Magic Online, never even making the top 4 of any of them. At this point, six years into my competitive run at Magic: The
Gathering, becoming a pro player seemed so far out of reach. The Pro Tour is the most exalted of all Magic tournaments, and as long as I can remember,
my goal has been to qualify for one.
In the last couple of years, I’ve made my name known as a StarCityGames.com ringer. I go to events that are open to the public, and I’m often able to
put up strong result after strong result. I like the title because it’s pretty unique. There aren’t many people who can say they do what I do: play
Magic competitively week after week, living on the road for the most part and couch-surfing. It’s very stressful when a game, a hobby to most, is
almost your livelihood. I sit down for my round, and the person across the table often knows who I am, what I’m playing, and the works. I can’t let
that intimidate me, and I can’t let my focus wane. It’s practically my job that’s on the line.
While living the life of a grinder is fun and I have very few complaints, there are hidden costs to traveling every weekend and playing Magic so much.
I’ve always been pushed forward by my desire to reach my own goals. There are so many obstacles in my way, in many aspects of my life, and as long as I
set the bar higher to overcome them, I can keep going. This year, I’ve qualified for the Midwest Masters Series Championship, the TCGplayer.com
Championship, as well as both StarCityGames.com $50,000 Invitationals. Qualifying for the Pro Tour was the only thing I was lacking. I needed to feel
the accomplishment that there was no level of this game that I couldn’t play on…
April 10, 2011. It’s day two of Grand Prix Dallas/Fort Worth, and I’m entering with an unblemished record at 9-0. The pressure is on, and I feel like
the whole world will be watching me to see if can break my Pro Tour curse. I have six rounds left of competition, and going 3-0 would be ideal because
it would pretty much hard lock me for Top 8. My tiebreakers are horrendous despite the great start, so I know I’ll most likely be unable to draw in at
Round ten I was featured against a solid U/W Caw-Blade player. After a mulligan to five on the play, I still managed a turn 2 Lotus Cobra and a turn 3
Jace, the Mind Sculptor. How lucky! I finally beat him after an extremely long game 3 where I relied on three Raging Ravines to crush him from start to
Round eleven I played the Grand Prix master himself, Owen “X-Owen” Turtenwald. He was playing RUG as well, and we had spent some brief time over the
last few weeks discussing cards in the list. We ended up playing 73 of the same cards with only one difference in both the maindeck and the sideboard.
It wasn’t a very exciting match, and he demolished me 2-0 and became the sole undefeated player left in the tournament. Bet nobody saw that coming.
Round twelve I got paired down against David Shiels with U/W Caw-Blade who had a record of 9-0-2. David is a good guy as well as a very tight player,
and I’ve had the honor of being crushed by him in a few pride drafts. He completely outdrew me in this match, and it wasn’t particularly close. He
ended up being my only loss to U/W on the weekend. Grand Prix champion indeed.
Well just like that, I was on my back foot. After starting off 10-0, I was suddenly 10-2 and 1-2 on the day. I was 2-5 in games halfway through day
two, and I wasn’t feeling too great about it. It was time to rally three wins in a row to make a shot at Top 8.
Round thirteen I played against Billy P. with U/W planeswalkers. Game three he kept a four-land hand and never drew a fifth all game, and it cost him.
Round fourteen I played against Dan Jordan, a good friend of mine from New York, playing the typical U/W Caw-Blade. His draws were subpar, and mine
were average, which generally leads to RUG crushing the feathery menace.
Now going into round fifteen, my poor tiebreakers meant that I was unfortunately the only person at 12-2 who had to play it out. If I lost, not only
would I miss Top 8, but I’d also most likely end up in 18th or 19th place (just outside of qualifying for the Pro Tour). I played an epic match against
mono-green Elves, and man, it was a nail biter. Luckily, it’s archived on GGsLive.com because it was an insanely close match with lots of swings. I
lost game one, and in game two, I was on two life and just about dead, needing to rip an untapped land for the win, and I luckily drew a match-winning
Mountain. Pretty much the same happened in game three.
As soon as I got the handshake, a swarm of my friends jumped on me, and there was a lot of applause and cheering. I felt overwhelmed. Had I finally
done it? Had I finally Top 8ed a Grand Prix? Had I finally qualified for my first Pro Tour!?! It was like a dream come true. I felt a million emotions,
and my friends were swarming over me all at once, but most of all, I felt deserving. I felt like a Grand Prix Top 8 and a Pro Tour invite was a fitting
outcome for the effort I had put into my deck and the game as a whole, and it was a long time coming. My phone was blaring texts and missed calls left
and right, and I knew I had lots of support from people who were genuinely proud of me. It was my biggest Magic accomplishment, and I could hardly
grasp what had just happened. As the Top 8 of the Grand Prix was announced, I held my breath. “After fifteen rounds of Swiss, in first place, with 39
points, Alex Bertoncini.” &$%$ YESSSS!! This Top 8 was a culmination of six years of playing Magic and traveling the country and meeting hundreds
of new people everywhere. It was my first chance to play at the zenith of professional play.
While the Top 8 was a two-deck affair, it still had a bunch of talent in it. There were 32 copies of Jace, the Mind Sculptor, and I can’t say I was
terribly surprised. I’m not going to comment here about the state of Standard and Jace, the “OMG this card is brainless and stupid” Sculptor, but I
will say that if you value format diversity more than play skill, go play lots of Legacy.
As for the Top 8, I played against a buddy of mine, Orrin Beasley, in the quarterfinals. It was another RUG mirror match, and so far I was 2-1 on the
weekend in the mirror. I won game one handily, and game two was in reach if I drew an untapped seventh land, but it wasn’t meant to be. Game three was
pretty anticlimactic. I didn’t draw a fourth land until I was practically dead, but I guess my luck was bound to run out at some point. I was upset
that I’d lost for about five minutes before I was once again overwhelmed with joy that I’d done so well. Next time though, I’m coming for that trophy.
So that’s the Alex Bertoncini story. It doesn’t end there for me though; there are dozens more events for me to play this year, and I hope you can all
root for me and watch me continue to grow as a player. I wouldn’t be where I am right now if it weren’t for the constant support and encouragement I
get from the truly wonderful people I’ve met playing this game. I still learn tons of things at each event I play, and I have a long way to go (maybe)
before I can make a Sunday appearance on the Pro Tour. I’m not giving up no matter how long it takes me.
My journey so far has been a blast. Did I make mistakes on the way? Yes. Did I learn many lessons from my years of slinging spells? Yes. Did I give up
on my goal of qualifying for the biggest competitive tournament this game has to offer? Never.
Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you guys in Philadelphia! (And possibly Nagoya.)
Until next time,