At The Gathering – Confessions From a PTQ

Claim your territory at The 2009's State and Provincial Championships!
Wednesday, November 18th – This past weekend, I played in my second Pro Tour Qualifier for San Diego. I played more Limited this time than I did for the last PTQ, but still failed to walk away with the Blue Envelope. While I’m pretty sure my rating went up overall, more importantly were a few of the lessons learned over the course of the weekend, which I’m going to share with you.

This past weekend, I played in my second Pro Tour Qualifier for San Diego. As we only have two right now within a 6 hour drive, I have to make the most of my opportunities. I played more Limited this time than I did for the last PTQ, but still failed to walk away with the Blue Envelope. While I’m pretty sure my rating went up overall, more importantly were a few of the lessons learned over the course of the weekend, which I’m going to share with you.

Lesson #1: I Hate Sealed.

Yes, I hate Sealed as a format, but not for many of the reasons cited by many other haters. I hate sealed for a few very specific reason.

First, I hate sealed because it is difficult to practice. I have probably looked at a good two dozen sealed pools over the last two weeks on every site I could find them on (Thanks Rich Hagon!) but even then, it’s not the same as putting the cards down and making pools. Furthermore, it’s a lot more time consuming to do that, so while I could have made each of the pools that were posted online with paper cards, realistically I couldn’t do so. The time aspect also affect practice because people rarely want to practice with you, so getting 8 men together for a sealed event is a lot harder than 8 guys for a draft. On top of that, you can play two drafts for the price of a sealed, which is very important for the budget conscientious players locally.

Which brings us nicely to the second point; sealed events are more expensive, with what feels like less fun. Compare to a draft, where you can at least have some affect over your deck, in a sealed event, you get what is given to you. No signaling, no cutting, heck, you can’t even rare-draft if it’s just going horrible for you. You don’t have as much affect over the amount of fun you get for your money. Furthermore, if you don’t have fun in a draft, you can at least point a finger at yourself for drafting poorly. In a sealed event, it feels a little more like a crapshoot.

Really, though, I hate sealed because I’m bad at it. I’ve been playing Magic competitively for a few years now, after switching from DDM, and I just haven’t cracked it. I’ve learned the intricacies of constructed, the different theories of the game at a decent level, but sealed continues to escape me. So, while there are some reasons I don’t like sealed, I’ll be the first to admit it’s because I just haven’t figured it out yet, which probably comes from a distinct lack of experience with it.

For instance, let’s take a look at the pool I received this past Saturday:

Looking at the pool, I can see I didn’t get much in White. Black looks reasonably strong, but Red really jumps out at me. In Blue, I would love to play Jwar Jwar Sphinx, but I’m don’t think the rest of the Blue is strong enough, and I’m not sure I want to splash for it, powerful as it may be. Green looks like it could be really good, but at the time, I didn’t see any obvious bombs, and thus discounted the color, perhaps unnecessarily? On second Glance, Red/ Green looks like it could work.

Looking at this pool, what would you play? Go ahead, take a moment, we’ll wait.

All done? Excellent. Here’s what I registered for our 8 rounds of fun.

Blood Seeker
2 Giant Scorpion
Hagra Diabolist
Nimana Sell-Sword
2 Bladetusk Boar
Goblin Ruinblaster
Hellfire Mongrel
3 Molten Ravager
Murasa Pyromancer
3 Torch Slinger
Tuktuk Grunts

Expedition Map
2 Trusty Machete

Marsh Casualties
Spire Barrage

Burst Lightning

10 Mountain
7 Swamp

I decided on a base Red Black deck, simple, straightforward. Given the power of the colors, I expected to do at least well enough to still be in contention with it through the late rounds. (Incidentally, the pool I opened, but had to pass, had triple Disfigure, Vampire Nighthawk, Gatekeeper of Malakir, Hideous End, and Malakir Bloodwitch, plus both black fetchlands. That way, you get your money back and a Top 8. Such is life.)

I ended up boarding out the Ruinblaster and the Pyromancer almost every round for Shatterskull Giant and either Inferno Trap or Seismic Shudder, depending on which I needed more. Neither of them should have been in the base build, so I know I built it wrong on at least those minor counts.

I went 2-2 drop, although they missed the drop checkmark and I played the 5th round anyway, as the draft wasn’t about to fire. I think this pool is stronger than a 2-2 record, but maybe I’m just overpowering it. I figured it could get me to 4-1 with even decent play. However, it was not our car’s day. I lost round 1 by a single turn both games, ready with the win if I manage to get the turn back. I won the next two rounds, and then proceeded to get flooded in game 3 of the fourth round, after two very hard fought games.

Brandon Houk, my buddy from north of us, and a competent player in his own right for sure, had an insane pool with 5 Oran-Rief Survivalists, but ended up mulliganing in 7 of his 9 games en route to his 2-2 drop as well. I believe he mulliganed a total of 11 times in 9 games, which certainly feels absurd in a deck that should be very consistent, as you just need two or three lands to get it going. He also drafted a very strong Red Black deck in the side draft, but lost to me in the first round with poor draws (and a mulligan, of course). Sometimes, it’s just not your day.

I can’t make that claim, though, as I played reasonably well, but made multiple mistakes over the first four rounds, including a few Blood Seeker triggers that may not have seemed important, but may have affected the math in each game without my knowledge. I missed a few free attacks early too, which I shouldn’t have.

That makes a nice segue to our second lesson.

Lesson #2: You Are Who You Play Against.

I wrote an article a few weeks ago about the need to play against the best. In order to play better, to progress, you need the challenge of playing against the best players you can find. Our playgroup has a long way to go to reach that level of skill, and it showed in this event. Almost every single person from my town (or very nearby) left the room with a record of .500 or worse. Some of the stronger competition in town didn’t make the trip, either because of illness, apathy, or other constraints on their time. Brandon lamented the same apathy among his group of players, noting a very distinct lack of players from his home town. We both commiserated on how we wish we could get a solid group of players together similar to what you see in areas with established players. While we both have bright spots in our local base, we’d certainly like more, and we’re both trying to make that happen.

Brandon is convinced you need a good base of “college-educated people.” To paraphrase him he wants players who have an education, for the intelligence it should represent. While I certainly wouldn’t be against it, I think it is more about their ability to make intelligent commitments. The one issue I find in many Magic Players is a lack of commitment. I’m not saying you need to play Magic 40 hours a week, but you should probably put Magic as a decent priority in your life if you want to be good at it. For instance, when I was a young, carefree man, I would bounce from job to job as I pleased. But when League night or prereleases for DDM came around, I made sure I had the money to play. I sold plasma on more than one occasion to make sure I could play. I see players who say such things as “I want to play in a Pro Tour” but then find out they wasted their money on frivolous things, then complain they don’t have the money to draft, or pay for gas, or pay entrance fees.

Another form of commitment is reading. There is so much information on the internet for Magic, including this here site you’re reading right now. The premium side of the site is $29.99 a year, which is ridiculously good for the amount of content you get. Not to sound like a corporate shill, but I tell many players the best thing they can do for their game is ship the $30 to SCG for a premium account for a year, if only for the “Drafting With” series and how much of a better drafter it will make you. That’s not even counting the familiarity you’ll get with the format, or any of the other amazing premium articles every weekday.

The next lesson I learned this past weekend wasn’t quite Magic related, but it’s still a good one.

Lesson #3: Life is More Than a PTQ.

Maybe the best part of this weekend was the people, and not necessarily the game. I had a number of people come up to me and mention they liked my articles, which is always an amazing thing, and I’m very thankful to all of the readers who have given me support and advice, even the criticism. Heck, especially the criticism.

Before the PTQ, I had the chance to have breakfast with Jack Stanton, one of the best guys on the planet and Pro Tour old timer, and his girlfriend Meg Dolan, sister of former World champion Zak Dolan. Many of you might remember Jack from his coverage writing back in the day, or even his play, which netted him more than a few Pro Points. Jack always has a great story and a kind smile, so it’s always great to have a chance to catch up with him.

I also met a nice guy in the finals of the draft who I split with, Jeremiah Munson. (Sorry if I slaughtered your name, I didn’t take notes that round after they moved us!) I’m sure I’ll see him at a number of Mountain West events for the foreseeable future.

I also got to spend some time with my cousins, who live in town, and graciously hosted my whole family at the last minute. See, I was supposed to drive down with the carload of gamers, but found out Thursday night I needed to go down Friday night instead, and we took that opportunity to take the whole family down. Spending time with your loved ones is almost never the Loser Choice.

Finally, the last lesson I learned this weekend is a tangential one, but an important one.

Lesson #4: mo’ modo, Mo’ Modo, MO’ MODO!

And by more, I mean any. I have avoided MODO because I tend to have an addictive personality, and I didn’t want it to become a sinkhole of time and/or money. However, I am now confident enough in my game and my budget to take the plunge. MODO is a great chance for me to become a better player, to practice more, and to experience new challenges from the opponents that I face, and more importantly, to do so on my schedule.

So, hopefully you can find me drafting on MODO in the near future. Feel free to say hi before wrecking me in another 8-4.

Until next time, this is Jeff Phillips, reminding you: Don’t make the Loser Choice.