Arcane Teachings – Project Hollywood Week 2: No Mercy

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Tom takes an introspective look at his experiences at the recent Extended double feature weekend at the Star City Game Center in Roanoke, and muses about how to give the universe no choice but to send you to Hollywood.

Due to a sudden change of plans, I ended up being able to attend an Extended weekend of gaming at the Star City Game Center two weekends ago. Pete always puts on a great event, and the Game Center is simply the best place to play games that I have ever been. I’m glad I went; it was an exhausting weekend, but I love to play, and I got to play an awful lot of Magic.

Here’s my updated schedule with results:

Project Hollywood

• 12/7: PTQ New York City (5-2, out after four rounds)
• 12/22: Winter King (8th, $75)
• 1/5: PTQ Roanoke, Virginia (6-2, out after six rounds)
• 1/6: Roanoke, Virginia Cash Tournament (5th, $75)
• 1/12: PTQ Cleveland, Ohio
• 1/13: Cleveland, Ohio (Mox tournament)
• 1/26: PTQ Louisville, Kentucky
• 2/9: PTQ Columbus, Ohio
• 2/16: PTQ Indianapolis, Indiana
• 2/23: PTQ Chicago, Illinois (tentative)
• 3/1: PTQ Nashville, Tennessee
• 3/15: Grand Prix: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
• 3/22: PTQ Indianapolis, Indiana
• 3/29: PTQ Columbus, Ohio

Note that Grand Prix: Vancouver is now off the schedule. I didn’t buy a ticket before getting back from winter break because I wanted to clear the trip with my professors, and after doing that the tickets had jumped a few hundred dollars out of my budget range. I may or may not be going to Chicago that weekend now, depending on how the spirit moves me and other people who would want to go on a road trip.

I played Doran on both days of the event. My list from Sunday is here:

Notes on the list: do not copy that sideboard, since I massively oversideboarded for the mirror and paid dearly for it. Okina and Urborg are gone because people started attacking my nonbasic lands and I wanted more basics. Otherwise, nothing significant changed and I don’t have any cool tech.

I made the offhand comment that this deck was “loose” in Ben’s forums last week. More articulately put, I feel like this deck is not at a pole and that causes it all kinds of problems. You have to play a bunch of Smothers and Loxodon Hierarchs to keep up with the beatdown decks. You have to play slow cards like Eternal Witness and Profane Command to handle mirrors, but these are marginal against combo and other fast decks. You have to play hand disruption to have a chance at the combination decks, which is bad in the mirror and against Red. Every card in this deck is individually amazing, but when you start drawing individually amazing cards that aren’t doing what you need them to do in a particular game, things go bad. Other than Bob, this deck cannot control its draws, which makes that problem even worse. I don’t think that this deck is bad per se, but it makes me very uncomfortable now that the format is defining itself. Shackles and Counterbalance are real problems in a late game, Dredge is just far faster than Doran can ever hope to be, and even Zoo decks can kill you before you can defend effectively. Playing this deck means you are going to be attacked from every side. I don’t think that it can handle that if the attacks are focused enough. I’ll be very surprised if we are still playing this deck at the end of the season in anywhere near the quantity that we are right now.

No Mercy on Yourself

No one can seriously improve without being able to honestly evaluate his own play, so let’s get down to some self-assessment. The PTQ on Saturday went poorly, and it was entirely my own fault. I lost the first round to carmate Doug Prosak playing Antoine Ruel Valencia deck, won four rounds against some people, then lost to Adam Westnedge in the junk mirror. I won the last two rounds to take home a bittersweet prize of five draft sets of Lorwyn for making the Top 16. Both matches I lost were my fault, and I can tell you exactly what went wrong in each of them.

I lost to Doug in two games. I’m certain I threw away game 1; the only creature he played was a Venser, Shaper Savant that somehow killed me single-handedly with a little bit of support from removal spells after I allowed a Dark Confidant to live for one turn too long. I mulliganed in game 2 and then didn’t resolve any spells before turn 5, and I don’t think I really had a shot at that one. Regardless, I tossed the first game so I can’t complain about luck. I believe that that matchup is good for me, so I would have happily played another game and I think I would have won, especially on the play. Regardless, this one is partly my fault.

My match against Adam was even more frustrating. I had just done my interview with Evan for the Magic Show in which I proclaimed the junk mirror is “really hard to play badly,” and then I went and made a key mistake in the mirror. We split games 2 and 3, and they were both pretty one-sided, but game 1 was a long and drawn-out affair. He mulliganed and I got a fast start, but he eventually stabilized and we got into a topdecking war. At one point I drew an Eternal Witness, and I could have returned Profane Command to just fireball him out next turn; instead, I chose to return a Smother and kill one of his guys so I could keep attacking. Returning Profane Command would give him a chance to draw a discard spell, but otherwise I immediately win. That was one of the few interesting decisions I had that game, and I didn’t do it right. He ripped his own Command to kill me the turn before I would have gotten him. Good beats.

Sunday’s cash tournament went a little bit better. I started 5-0 against a mirror, Flow Rock, a mirror, Affinity, and TEPS, and drew twice into the Top 8. Then I met Adam Westnedge again, who was now playing Red Deck Wins splashing Tarmogoyf instead of Junk like he was on Saturday. I stabilized game 1 at around ten life with a Hierarch while he had a Tarmogoyf, Grim Lavamancer, and Mogg Fanatic, but I drew a string of lands and discard spells and Adam simply killed me with Magma Jets and the Lavamancer. I won game 2 fairly easily when he got a slow draw and I was able to set up my defenses before he played a Magus of the Moon. In game 3 I mulliganed into a hand that only had Treetop Village and Chrome Mox for mana, and that situation never really got better before I got Mooned again, after which I didn’t cast another spell and I died in a fire.

Losing to Adam again was frustrating. He seemed a little bit nervous both times we played. Despite that, he played competently in both matches. Both of his decks were fairly close to stock lists. His mannerisms suggested that he had enough tournament experience to know what was going on, but not quite enough to be entirely comfortable. I’m not trying to say that I am better than Adam, since I actually have no idea how good he is. However, he seemed to me to be exactly the kind of guy I need to be able to get through multiple times to actually win one of these things. Losing to him in both tournaments was a strong message from the universe that I’m not ready to win a PTQ yet. I heard that, and I’m trying to change it.

No Mercy on the Rules

I’ve been consuming in a lot of personal development material lately, and one concept that these authors and speakers talk about repeatedly is congruence. This is the idea that in order to get something you want, you need to act as though you already have that thing. If you want to get paid more, change yourself to be more like people who get paid a lot: work extra hours at your job, become more productive with the time you do spend, and try to take on more responsibility. If you want a better relationship, then do the things that more socially successful people do: wear nice clothes, work on improving your body, and regularly practice dealing with members of the opposite sex. If you want to win at Magic, you may be holding yourself back if you don’t do everything that you can to win within the rules to win. No matter what your endeavor is, you won’t get what you want until you give the universe no choice but to give it to you. The universe can only satisfy so many dreams at once, and it gets to the ones that it thinks are the most important first. You put your dream at the top of the queue by showing the world that you deserve to get it.

My article two weeks ago encouraged you to show that you deserve to win a PTQ by going to lots of them. It also goes without saying that you need to play good decks, play well, and so on. However, if you aren’t enforcing the rules as far as you can, you may lose edges and that can cost you games, matches, and tournaments.

I failed the rules part of that test exactly once this weekend, and it cost me. My second round opponent was playing a homebrewed Scepter-Chant list that had no Red mana in it. Early in game 2 he cast Opt, put the Opt in his graveyard, picked up the top card of his deck, put it into physical contact with the rest of the cards in his hand, and stared deep in thought. I understood quite clearly that he was not done resolving the Opt, watched him like a hawk to make sure that card didn’t get mixed in, and then I let him put it on the bottom. At the end of that game, he topdecked an Orim’s Chant that he used as a Time Walk to kill me with his Sower of Temptation and my Tarmogoyf. If I had called a judge and forced him to keep the first card, I may have won that game. Lesson learned. I still won game 3, but I was shaken.

In later rounds, I was much better about using the rules to their full potential. In round 4, I forced a Zoo player’s two freshly-cast Jotun grunts to die after he drew a card without paying upkeep, and he was almost horrified that I wouldn’t allow him to just go back, but that’s two 4/4’s that would have been very annoying to deal with. In the last round, I called a slow-play judge with ten minutes to go in game 3 to make sure that I could actually finish off my Gifts Rock opponent. He was taking a very long time to figure things out because he had a Top, multiple shuffling outlets, and was low on mana. After the match, he told me that he was extremely insulted that I would accuse him of trying to stall me out. That’s not at all what I thought; I understood how complicated his decisions were, but I wanted them to happen in a reasonable amount of time so that I could kill him instead of taking a draw. I won with a minute left on the clock, and that was good for fifteenth place and five draft sets. Who knows if I would have those packs if I hadn’t called that judge?

I’m not asking you to play like I do, but I am asking you to think about these situations rationally. If you would do something differently than I did, that’s fine and I don’t think you’re less of a person or a player. I never deliberately cheat, and you shouldn’t either. I remind people about mandatory triggers when I catch them, even when it’s bad for me to do that. I correct people when they miss marking down damage I take from my lands. These are all things that you and I are obligated to do, and I do them. However, I will never remind anyone about their “may” ability when there is anything significant on the line, unless I actually want them to use it. What do you do in these situations, and why? Enforcing the rules to the hilt is not inherently evil, even if you find it distasteful.

Along these lines, I’d like to present to you two hypothetical situations. Assume that you are playing at a tournament with rules enforcement level three or higher in each situation.

You sit down for a tournament match. You and your opponent shuffle and present. You notice that your opponent’s deck appears to be about half made up of foils that are heavily bent, and half made up of cards that are completely flat. What do you do?

You are playing a Kamigawa block tournament against a Gifts player. You lose game one, during which you notice that all of your opponent’s lands- including Shizo, Okina, and two Tendo Ice Bridges– are foil. Your opponent is also playing Godo maindeck, and his Tatsumasa is foil. You saw no non-land non-Tatsumasa foils. What do you do?

The first situation happened to me at Grand Prix: Salt Lake City in the third round of the tournament. My opponent seemed inexperienced and told me that it was his first Grand Prix, and I had spent $250 on a plane ticket to get there. I called a judge and asked him to investigate the deck. About five minutes later, the judge disappeared with my opponent and I got a match win because my opponent’s deck was marked. How do you feel about what I did, and why?

The second situation happened to me at a PTQ for Pro Tour: Los Angeles. It was an elimination match for me; this would have been my second loss. I knew my opponent to be a high-quality player, as I had seen him in various Top 8s earlier in the season. It turned out that he was indeed playing with all foil lands, a foil Tatsumasa, and no other foils. These are all cards that a Gifts deck does not want to draw in the late game, so having a foil on top could tip him off that he should shuffle his deck. My opponent received a match loss for having a marked deck, I went on to win the tournament, and that allowed me to go to my first Pro Tour. How do you feel about this, and why?

In both cases, the decks were unequivocally marked. Sure, I got match wins, but who knows if my opponents were actually trying to cheat using foils to mark their deck? If they were, I saved some other people from being cheated. That’s what the penalties are there to do. Would you have someone not call a judge and potentially let someone else get cheated too on the chance that the player was not intending to cheat?

Along the lines of things within the rules that are outside the actual game play, there are sometimes opportunities to make true miracles happen in unlikely situations. Mike Long was an expert at this, and was somehow able to win by tricking someone into not playing a Form of the Dragon in Limited in a Team Grand Prix Top 4. You need to look out for opportunities to do them, because they can randomly win games for you that would have been otherwise out of reach. They won’t happen very often, but when they do happen they are pretty awesome.

I’ve only caused true miracles to happen twice. The first was at a Mirrodin Block PTQ. It was an Affinity mirror, and I was playing against someone who I knew didn’t have much mirror experience. We were in turn 5 of extra turns, and it was his turn. He had a Blinkmoth Nexus, Arcbound Ravager, and Disciple of the Vault, and I had only a Ravager and Disciple but no flying blockers. He had seven total artifacts to go with his Nexus, and I was at fifteen, so if he went all-in on the Nexus that would be fifteen damage. However, my Disciple pings would put him low enough that I could start sacrificing my own artifacts in a way that let my Disciple triggers resolve but never allowed his to resolve, and that would let me kill him before the Nexus hit me. However, he wasn’t even thinking about killing me, and was about to pass the turn and take the draw. I needed him to try to kill me to win, so I started counting with my finger and said “oh god, that’s en…” and then sat back in my chair, horrified, as though I had just given something away. He did the math, agreed with me, tried to kill me, and then died a surprising death to a timing trick he had never seen before.

The other time that I made a miracle happen was at the onsite Grand Prix Trial for Grand Prix: Salt Lake City. It was early in a Gifts mirror game 2 with both of us at 20 life, and I had won game one. We had each played a Kokusho and had them killed by the legend rule, but were stuck on six lands. I tapped out for Ink-Eyes, and he untapped and played a 5/5 Kagemaro with one Black mana untapped. I went to attack and, he fingered his land, so I said “do you just want to pop that before I declare attackers to save me the trouble of turning this sideways?” He chuckled, said “sure,” and did so. I then smiled, cast Goryo’s Vengeance splicing Goryo’s Vengeance on my Ink-Eyes and Kokusho during the before-declaring-attackers-but-still-in-combat step, attacked him for ten, burgled his copy of Kokusho, and did ten to him with the Kokusho triggers. That’s twenty, and that put the match away immediately.

Both of those things are entirely legal, although sneaky and deceptive. I’m proud that I saw the ways to make them happen. Would you have done either of them? If you saw them, would you have deliberately chosen not to do them for moral reasons?

Let’s assume that you do really want to qualify. What aspects of your preparation, play, and rules enforcement would give the universe an excuse for not letting you win your next PTQ? Find those parts of yourself and mercilessly crush them until there are none left, and the universe may have no choice but to send you to Hollywood.

I had a chat with Evan Erwin on Sunday about the fact that there are no “bad guys” in the Magic writing world, and he suggested that I could fill that role. I thought about doing that, but I don’t think I can be consistently angry all the time in public for show. However, I seem to always get some amount of negative response when I publicly make statements that make me seem seriously competitive. This entirely mystifies me. We play tournaments for product, cash, plane tickets, and invitations. It seems irrational to begrudge someone for trying their best to win any of those things.

Happy PTQing!

Tom LaPille