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All Fairness: Part 1

Thursday, November 25th – GP Nashville may not have been one of Tim Aten’s most successful of undertakings, but something excellent does come out of it in the end… this “report.”

There’s clearly something wrong with me.

If I’m being honest (as is my tendency), there are clearly
many

things wrong with me, but the pertinent, detrimental idiosyncrasy pertains to my motivation for writing. I’m not capable of writing at will—the proper mood has to strike me, or a particular anecdote must snowball into a flurry* of cathartic rambling. The part of my brain responsible for my so-called creativity is completely severed from my relevance filter. To illustrate, I had nothing to say when I won the Team Grand Prix some 35 years ago, and I never bothered completing the report about my best PT finish… and yet here I am, preparing to regale you with anecdotes from a 170th-place outing at a Grand Prix.

This ostensible irony isn’t as whimsically arbitrary as it appears. Failure just begets better storytelling than success. I say the following not without a tinge of remorse, but I couldn’t be more pleased that Jeff Cunningham lost the finals of the 2006 Invitational to Antoine, as this heartbreaking close call served as inspiration for the greatest tournament report ever written. Perhaps it feels more significant, more satisfying, to expound the particulars of one’s angst—hopefully elucidating the experience and instilling empathy—than to write another feel-good story of rainbows and sunshine. Everyone understands that winning is awesome, rendering the subset of victory lap articles that are rife with superlatives and gratitude more or less redundant. (“I won again, against all odds, and I couldn’t believe it! I was sooooo happy!”) Of course, reports of victory can be worthwhile if the storyteller is talented or the strategy enriching, but triumph never seems to be my impetus for writing.

In today’s narrative, there will be no Standard decklists. There will be no pick orders. There will be no strategy. I can’t promise you relevance, coherence, or entertainment. I may not always write in complete sentences. (You’ll note how I refrained from making the obvious form-follows-function play of making the previous sentence a fragment itself.) There may be some sort of tongue-in-cheek disclaimer near the beginning of the article, and there may be a sentence warning you of it that serves to further display my heightened sense of self-awareness; I really haven’t decided yet.

Then again, the dozen or so of you who actually clicked on this probably knew what you were in for already.

Chapter One: The Upkeep

Most of us have read more than enough introspection about the changing role of Magic in one’s life, what success at a given tournament would mean to the author, and so on. I will forego that, and not only because it’s played-out, but also because I didn’t really have ambitions of some sort of epiphany or turning point in my career heading into the tournament. Earlier in the week, maybe; but by the time Friday rolled around, I was mostly looking forward to seeing Ryan O'Connor and Mehran Latif.

I’m not sure if anything good has ever resulted from waking up to an alarm. Whether you’re bound for school or a job; preparing to make an 8-hour drive to a Magic tournament; or preempting the nap you took because you just couldn’t stand to be conscious anymore, because dreams and other forms of fantasizing are your only escape from the abject horror your reality has become, but you sort of want to watch Jeopardy because it’s the only thing you have to look forward to that doesn’t involve gorging until you’re even more depressed on a given day…disrupting one’s natural rhythms is a sure portent of misery. The alarm also prompts what is bound to be the first of many utterances of “Why in God’s name am I doing this?” over the course of the day.

I woke up at 6:30 on Friday to drive the hour or so to Rodman’s house, and from there we drove eight hours to Tennessee. If you’ve never met Rodman, no meager character sketch could do the essence of this stalwart any justice, so I won’t bother trying. For now, suffice it to say that riding shotgun when he’s driving is an exercise in frustration; he can’t focus on multiple things at once, and whatever is the least relevant seems to take precedence. Whenever we started to have a conversation, his foot would ease off the gas, and the speedometer would dip to 58. I lost count of the times we swerved while he was reaching for or uncapping his Pepsi. And my God, the rubbernecking. This was painful enough when he, in stereotypical American yokel fashion, slowed down to take a peek at a conspicuous agglomeration of police cars; but he also lost interest in the road admiring such things as the various Christian propaganda billboards, the glorious architecture of Cincinnati (not kidding), or the novelty of more-attractive-than-average women in more-luxurious-than-average cars. No amount of insistence that he could look at all the women, cars, or—heart be still—women IN cars he wanted on the internet or at literally any other time than while he was driving could discourage him. I assure you that copiloting Magic Online with him while there’s a television on in the background is no less of an ordeal. If you’re playing against him on Modo (his nick is just Rodman) and there’s a conspicuous several-minute pause, the likely explanation is that Josh Waitzkin is about to have his draw offer declined by the kid with the goofy hair, or maybe someone on Nip/Tuck is in the process of being adulterous.

After hours of sighs, eye rolls, and of course, AFI marathons, we arrived at the site. I’m not sure about the rest of the tournament-goers who traversed this garish monstrosity, but I was appalled. It took over 20 minutes to navigate our way from the entrance to the tournament hall itself, and I spent the majority of this time in slack-jawed disbelief at the sheer opulence. The complex was mammoth and labyrinthine**. It was basically composed of an enormous hotel surrounding a combination shopping mall/amphitheater/public park, with numerous abutting corridors leading to a plethora of ballrooms. It kind of felt like a modern-day airport with waterfalls and a gaudy nativity scene in lieu of the airplanes. It was like a self-contained city. And quite frankly, the whole thing gave me the willies. Usually I don’t feel the deepest pangs of regret for attending a Grand Prix until I’m surrounded by the unwashed masses in their backpacks and mana symbol t-shirts, but here, the sense of resigned entrapment had set in before I saw my first Myr.

Chapter Two: Money Drafting For Money Dollars

I didn’t intend to draft at all on Friday night because I know that when I’m at a GP, I need to conserve my desire for playing physical Magic. Two and a half straight days of shuffling and thinking and shuffling and thinking and complaining and stressing and whining and SHUFFLING grows quite burdensome. This, combined with the fact that I simply enjoy watching competitive matches of Magic—to me, it’s at least as compelling a spectator sport as any professional American offering, and certainly more so than *scoff* soccer—has contributed to my reputation as a notable railbird.

I realized almost immediately that Matt Sperling acknowledgement of my perennial post on the perimeter would be far more a curse than a blessing. Being reduced in people’s minds or writings to a conveniently lazy go-to epithet like “curmudgeon” or “railbird” really steams my clams. This compartmentalization seems to imbrue many of my casual encounters with acquaintances, and I hate “grinning and bearing it” through the insipid variations of “Oh my god, you’re PLAYING?!?!” every time I make eye contact with someone. I suppose this really can’t be helped, as people are prone to awkwardly fumble in conversation without default small-talk standbys to fall back on. And ultimately, no amount of banal blather will dissuade me from doing what I love, because when it comes right down to it, this bird you cannot change. Lord help me, I can’t change.

At 5:45, I was either wandering around aimlessly (quietly my second-favorite activity at Magic events) or sitting complacently in one chair with one arm lazily drooped over another—relishing my nonparticipation—when my Danish foreign exchange student friend Christoffer zipped over and asked if I wanted to team draft. At that point, I was perhaps teetering on the brink of boredom, so I ventured inquiry as to our prospective opponents. Chris (hereafter referred to as Chrandersen) pointed to a cluster of people that included Nick Becvar, Christian Valenti, and Ethan McKenzie, and that was all the motivation I needed to begin my search for a third. AJ Sacher seemed lukewarm about entering a third consecutive team draft, and I was about to embark on a concerted sweep of the hall for the perfect complement to the squad when none other than Stephen King materialized in the aisle before me.

I’ve met quite a few awesome people through Magic, but Stephen King (pictured
here

with his aunt Slappy) and his longtime compatriot Tommy Ashton stand out as two of my all-time favorites. They’re both intelligent, easygoing, and appropriately irreverent in the face of the various peculiarities of human existence. It’s just so rare to find people with interesting, entertaining personalities who are also legitimately nice. As concerns the impending draft, he’s a pretty solid spellflinger—certainly better than our opponents—and having two unassuming teammates like Chrandersen and him would let me easily play the “obnoxious” card.

If you’re unfamiliar with my oeuvre, the digression-from-a-digression I’m about to explore may be a little discombobulating, but really I’m shooting for “charmingly unrefined.” ***

When I team draft, I have both the most fun and the most success when my team has a particular heterogeneous dynamic: I want a split of “quietly determined straight man” and “brazen buffoon.” Fortunately, I’m perfectly capable of playing either role as appropriate; for instance, if Gabe Walls is on my team, I’ll let him do the talking. And naturally, if the skill disparity between the teams is too great, no manner of team chemistry is likely to provide a bailout. One of my successful “2 buffoon, 1 straight man” teams included, in addition to myself, Patrick Sullivan and Taylor Putnam. Patrick and I had just gotten back from BW3 and were utterly sloshed, so we were derisive and irritating while Putnam was forced to sit there in silent dismay, unwilling or unable to voice any dissension because we were annihilating our opponents. As I hinted at earlier, today’s draft would be “2 straight men, 1 buffoon.”

Despite the title of this segment, I’m not about to claim we drafted for money, as that sort of behavior is frowned-upon. I’m also not going to use some pseudo-clever, winking euphemism for “money-drafting,” because it’s such a tired, unoriginal practice. We didn’t draft for “20 push-ups” (even though at least one member of the other team offered those as the stakes), and we didn’t do a “ca$usal” draft. We just “drafted.” Okay?

I’m also not going to mention the name of the person who always gets invoked at the slightest hint of a bet. (I will take this opportunity to mention, incidentally, that while he does have a problem with the rule about betting on matches, he doesn’t seem to have the same misgivings about undercutting the vendors on draft sets.) This person has parlayed his exploitation of a sketchy loophole into household-name-level notoriety, and I don’t want to provide him with additional undue satisfaction. It’s a shame that 99% of people in this subculture (and the culture as a whole, realistically), are visionless, brainless parrots, and that the remaining 1% have to deal with the perpetuation of insipid lingo as a result.

It’s unclear why I seem to go lightheaded and lose my bearings as soon as I start a team draft at a GP. Unless I’m tilted or distracted, I’m pretty confident in what I’m doing in any given Magic Online draft, but most of my IRL 6-mans quickly degenerate into debacles. (I think such individuals as Mehran, Ryan O'Connor, Donnie Peck, and Armored J. Cancrix, Esq. may know what I’m talking about.) I hate-draft impulsively and at the incorrect times; I make ill-advised color switches only to regret them two picks later; I show a blatant disregard for the mana curve; I pass the person to my left a deck three times as good as mine; the list goes on. Fortunately, deep within me resides some amount of natural talent and the requisite spunk to persevere in the face of adversity.

Te presento a…

The Worst Deck with Elspeth, Sunblast Angel, and Sword of Body and Mind You Will Ever See

Wall of Tanglecord
Iron Myr
Gold Myr
Auriok Sunchaser
Lifesmith
2 Neurok Replica
Palladium Myr
Chrome Steed
2 Acid Web Spider
Soliton
Sunblast Angel
2 Horizon Spellbomb
Galvanic Blast
Strider Harness
Sword of Body and Mind
2 Tower of Calamities
Rusted Relic
Elspeth Tirel
Chimeric Mass
8 Forest
7 Plains
1 Mountain
1 Island

I could feel the judging glances from my teammates and hear dubious chatter from onlookers. They didn’t trust the Towers and wanted them out of the equation. As a consummate professional and an autonomous adult, I chose to exercise my full veto powers. When you’ve been in the trenches as long as I have, you know what it takes to cobble together those wins.

My first opponent was Nick Becvar, and he was playing a straightforward Blue/White flying deck. I’m sure he never made any plays like suiciding a 2/2 into my Chimeric Mass so he could Arrest it post-combat, but even if he had, it wouldn’t have mattered; each game, a Tower showed up to defeat him almost single-handedly and completely vindicate my seemingly eccentric concoction. By the time I was done dealing upwards of 120 damage to Becvar’s creatures, Stephen had already lost his first two matches, hopped into a nearby DeLorean, conceded rounds 6 through 8 of the GP on Saturday, and come back to grin sheepishly and stare at the ground as I shook my head with disapproval. Likewise, Chrandersen had fallen to Edgar McKenzie’s strong poison deck after taking a 1-0 lead thanks to a quintuple-mulligan.

In the second round of the draft, I faced Christian Valenti preposterous (and I don’t mean preposterously good) G/B/R mixed bag. Moriok Reavers and Corpse Curs held hands with Ferrovores and Root Greevils as they danced around a pit of Tainted Strikes, Sylvok Lifestaffs, and Serpent Skins. I won one game because he overextended into an Elspeth that already had six counters on it, and another was a drawn-out affair in which my Spiders held the ground long enough for me to assemble an alpha-strike force. In one of the games, I bounced a Corpse Cur like a mouth-breathing lummox (his graveyard was empty! Dahhhhrrr!) when he had another in play, putting me in quite the predicament. To be honest, I can’t recall if this happened in the first game, the second, or in some evanescent third game in between the two that I won. Fortunately, my team started showing signs of life as Chrandersen brought us back to an even 3-3.

I assumed my sluggish mishmash would get ripped apart by Evan’s sleek infect machine (with Skithiryx!), but I was still optimistic that my teammates could take care of the rest. In the first game, I kept five lands, a Myr, and Sword of Body and Mind. Eugene’s deck seemed light on removal, and I figured the Sword gambit would be an easier path to victory than Juzaing to six. My first draw step yielded Auriok Sunchaser, and after I drew another artifact, the game was well in-hand. My second opener included Gold Myr and Sunblast Angel (the first time I’d drawn it), but Ebenezer used Plague Stinger, Ichor Rats, Bladed Pinions, and maybe an Untamed Might to finish me off before I could even cast it. Game 3 was refreshingly anticlimactic, as Esmerelda double-mulliganed and played little more than Vector Asps and a splashed Arrest on my Palladium Myr. That’s why I always sleeve, even in team drafts. Lands, especially slightly played ones, do tend to clump together after many games. My teammates both won (yes, even Stephen), and the draught was ours.

Afterward, I asked my teammates if we could keep my deck together until I could show it to Mehran, and Chrandersen put it in his bag. On Sunday, long after Mehran had learned of its contents, I reminded Chrandersen that we needed to retrieve the deck and split up and/or sell the rares. Chris, who had already expressed an interest in divvying the rares rather than selling them, seemed surprised at this; allegedly, he was completely unaware that the Elspeth and the Sword were still in his possession. I told Stephen to take the next shift in trying to wrest what was rightfully ours from the covetous imp, but Stephen remained as noncommittal and nonconfrontational as ever, choosing simply to walk over to Chrandersen’s draft, sit silently for a few minutes, and then walk away. As of the time of this transcription, my share of the rares is still in a quiet suburb of Indianapolis.

 

Wellllp…that’s all I have the energy for today. Barring unforeseen circumstances—or even foreseen circumstances, such as a high number of remarks indicating a presumption that I’ll be too lazy to finish this, or a perceived lack of interest in this article and its follow-up(s)—I will be back next week with an account of the tournament itself. In the meantime, here is my Grand Prix Sealed pool:


I was underwhelmed, to be sure. I would love to hear how other people would have built this. If you come up with a solid 40-card list and not just a generalized idea (“I probably woulda played some good cards of this color with good cards of that color and added artifacts and lands”), please ship it to [email protected]

 

XOXOXO

Timothy James Aten

TotalAmoral on MODO (for drafting)

Best Sunday Dress on MODO (for Momir-ing)

 

 

* Mixing metaphors never felt so right.

** Apologies to Mehran and the Wolff for having to read this description again, but I’m kind of enamored with its accuracy.

*** i.e. lazy