“Your past doesn’t equal your future.”
Who you were isn’t who you are. It’s not who you have to be.
I finished third at Vintage Championship at Gen Con this year.
I could give you a tournament report top to bottom. I’d tell you everything that I thought that day and all about the decisions that I made.
I could give you a primer about how to play Martello Shops. Maybe you’d feel better about picking up a new deck.
I could give you a personal history and tell you about my journey as a player. There might be some value for you there along the way. Maybe you’d see yourself doing what I did. Maybe you’d change for the better.
But life is very rarely one thing, in its entirety, all at once. I was a Shop player, theorist, and Vintage pilot at Vintage Champs. I’m going to give you more than just one aspect of an event, Shop theory, or my journey. I’m going to give you a little bit of everything.
“The only constant is change.”
I’ve been playing Vintage all my life; I just didn’t know to call it Vintage for a while. There are still some players out there who remember the really early days, the days when Black Lotus wasn’t as sought after as Shivan Dragon or Lord of the Pit, when Magic was played at your kitchen table with 80-card decks.
My brothers Luigi, Vincent, and I began playing Magic in 1994. Vin may have always been a step ahead of us, but I had a deck that I loved, and I think that by the end I was pretty good with it. Show and Tell had nothing on Eureka, and my black/green deck was capable of quickly accelerating into strong creatures like Juzaam Djinn, Craw Giant, and Force of Nature. I had control aspects to the deck in cards like Icy Manipulator and Forcefield. Maybe you’ve never seen a Force of Nature get Berserked, but I have, and it felt good every damn time.
Life always intervenes in our best-laid plans. Some years went by where none of the three of us played. By the time 2005 rolled around, I was ready to dust off my cards and head to an event. I remembered being pretty good for a while, and I would still beat up on the locals in the random pickup Vintage games that I was getting. I lurked around TMD, and I eventually found a list that I liked. I couldn’t give you the exact 60, but it looked something like this:
Sometimes you break the rules without even knowing what the rules are. I bought my plane ticket to Chicago expecting to win. It’s the first stepâ€”attitude is important. But it isn’t everything, and sometimes we need a little humble pie to take the next big step. My day in Chicago wasn’t great; I finished 5-3. My ego took a bit of a hit, and that’s exactly what I needed.
I went out and found a deck that I liked, but I didn’t understand it. I didn’t understand the thought that went into it, and I wasn’t able to answer one of the most important questions: how are you going to win this game? Vin would repeat that to me, but I could never give him the answer that he wanted. I could recount the games and tell him what happened, but I couldn’t explain why I won or why I lost. I didn’t know how to analyze a match, how to define my role, and how to execute it. My deck wasn’t 60 cards that interacted harmoniously; it was 60 cards that I played with.
Vintage was ascendant in 2005. It was a popular format that was growing, and I loved playing with my cards. I wasn’t going to play another format; I wanted to play the purest format in the game. I wanted to play my power. I wasn’t going to show up to a tournament and essentially donate an entry fee. I needed to get better. But the most important thing that I took back with me from Chicago was the knowledge that I wasn’t as good as I thought I was. It’s one of the best lessons that I’ve ever gotten.
“You will be rewarded in public for what you do in private.”
I liked Eureka and I liked The Riddler, but in the end I fell in love with Smokestack. Some players know where they want to go when they first pick up the cards; they pick the strategies that they’re bound to like. Some of us meander. The journey mattered. While I ended up with Smokestacks (and, thus, Mishra’s Workshop), I still had improvements in my technical game and my understanding of the game that came from playing other decks.
If you only focus on getting to your destination, you’re going to lose the value of the journey. Getting to where you’re going is only one part of going there. Ignoring what’s out there for you, along the way, is the fastest way to get lost and to lose the value of the journey. Everything matteredâ€”learning interactions, cards, and the way to incorporate effects that I wanted were all important bits of what make me the player that I am today.
I still had a ways to go. I fell into traps with Smokestack, just as I fell into traps with The Riddler and my Eureka deck. I was hunting for blowouts. I was more focused on locking people out than I was on actually winning the game. I missed obvious plays as I chugged along. In one game I had a City of Brass, Barbarian Ring, Wasteland and five cards in yard with an opponent on two life. Clearly I lost that, with Vin telling me afterward that all had to do was float mana from the City, Waste it, and win with the Barbarian Ring. I had gotten a little better, but I still wasn’t very good.
I was still lost. Next to me through all of this was Vinnie. "How are you going to win this game?" "What’s your role?" I kept hunting for blowouts, and I still couldn’t answer any of Vin’s questions.
“Success leaves clues.”
The Shop core was powerful. Lodestone, Wire, and Metamorph ran through him in game 1. Game 2 was looking to be no different.
When you look at successful people, you’ll probably notice a similar strain of character that exists in all of them: whatever they’re doing, whether it’s selling real estate, pitching for the Yankees, or playing a card game, they all expect to win. They expect to have the results because they believe that they’re the best at what they do. When a batter steps up to the plate against an ace pitcher and believes that he’s going to make an out before he’s seen a pitch, then it’s time for him to retire.
I wanted blowouts because I didn’t have the confidence yet. Results are what matter, and I knew it. I didn’t have the results. I had a bunch of average finishes, with a few that were a little better than that. I hadn’t taken down a big event; I hadn’t put my stamp on something yet.
But success doesn’t come overnight; it won’t come all at once. I’d been thinking about what Vin had been saying for all these years, but one question stuck with me more than the others: "When you lose, what happens?" A bad player can look at a game and tell you every possible iteration of how their opponent was lucky and how they were unlucky. It’s bullcrap. Yeah, every once in a while we get blown out. This is a game of imperfect information. If you want a game of perfect information, then you should go play chess.
If you’re going to play Magic, then you better start looking at your decision trees if you want to win. You have to take ownership over your plays, stop talking about ‘luck’ (which is a product of play skill and building), and think about how you could have played a game differently. I had started to think about all of those things, but I didn’t have all the answers just yet. If you’re focused on the fireworks at the end of a blowout, then you’re going to miss the spark that started it all.
Vinnie had put together what would become one of the best decks in the format: Forino Sui Black. It was a suicide black combo deck that used Dark Confidant and Night Whispers to generate card advantage while it denied the opponent with Duress effects, Wasteland, and more. It sought to launch a couple of Tendrils of Agony at the opponent while it attacked their resources. It was powerful.
But Vin had some problems, so I turned the tables on him: "When you lose, what happens?" "I usually end up with too many of something in my hand, mostly mana." "Well, what would happen if you cut a couple of cards and ran two Bazaar of Baghdad in the maindeck?"
It was an off the wall suggestion. Vin’s deck ran a maindeck Library of Alexandria; he often had seven (or more) cards in hand. Still, Bazaar seemed like a solid answer to a specific problem: how do I filter my draws without sacrificing other aspects of my game?
Vin may be a phenomenal theorist and player, but this was the first time that I had a suggestion that really impacted the course of his building and his deck. He tried it out, and sure enough, Bazaar proved its power.
It felt great, but beyond that, it was the first time I had really broken through and made a change in a deck that worked out really well. It gave me confidence; if I was able to analyze my brother’s deck and make a change that made it better, what could I do for myself? What could I do with my Shop deck? I finally knew what he meant when he asked me what happened when I lost.
“Excitement creates energy.”
A horde of Zombies got me in the first game. As I mulliganed lower and lower, I knew that my chances of winning this round decreased exponentially. My hand of four was the best I could manage. It wasn’t pretty…
2006 saw the printing of Empty the Warrens, and by the time 2007 rolled around the card was making its impact felt in Vintage. 5CStax stood above all others in 2005, but by 2007 people were calling the deck dead. Empty the Warrens was crushing the 5C decks that were out there, and while people were suggesting answers (The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale, Engineered Explosives, and Slice and Dice), none of them were particularly good in 5C.
I looked through my cards, and I found something that I liked: Powder Keg. Keg was a card that was strong on its ownâ€”it gave you game on the draw, as you were able to handle opposing Moxen, it was an immediate answer to Empty the Warrens, and it worked well with Welders. It was everything that 5C needed.
When people saw me playing with the card, they questioned it and questioned me. If this had been 2005 Raffaele Forino, I might have caved. But I knew that my ideas had merit; I had watched my brother do incredible things with Forino Sui Black, but I watched him do it, in part, on the back of Bazaar of Baghdad. I had proven my worth to myself. And that was the only person that I had to answer to when it came to this game.
But 2007 was more than the year of Powder Keg in 5CStax. As a Vintage player, I felt great. As a real estate/mortgage professional going through the free fall of the mortgage crisis, things could have been better. I had gotten married, and my daughter was born in 2007. There was too much going on, and while I may have been getting the hang of things with Vintage, life demanded that I put the cards down. So I did.
“Whether you believe that you can or you can’t, you are right.”
He unrolled his mat, and I saw the PTQ Top 8 pins. I smelled Wastelands. His Aether Vial resolved. I played a Sphere, played the Shop I had protected, and resolved a Phyrexian Revoker. He went to Force it. I pointed to my Sphere…
I took my break in 2007 because I had no other choice. I had to address the other aspects of life. Magic would be there for me when I was ready to come back. By the time August of 2008 rolled around, I was thinking about it.
I had picked up my cards again and started to test. I met some players from the local area that I liked, and I started thinking about 5C again, all while I started to test again. By the time November came I was ready to play in an event again.
TravisConII was the first event on my schedule, and it was an unmitigated disaster. I finished the day 2-4, but every round taught me something. There were aspects of 5C that I liked very much and some parts of it that clearly needed to be changed.
There was something else. It was time to get good or get out. My supposed purpose had been winning all along. But was it really? I didn’t always build like it was, test like it was, or act like it was. I was getting too old to rationalize showing up if I wasn’t going to put the results up. If I was going to play, I was going to do it right; I was going to test, I was going to work on theory, and I wasn’t going to show up blind. Excuses were no longer acceptable. It was time to win or stop playing.
One of the most important lessons I have ever learned in Magic is this: do not ever be afraid to slaughter a sacred cow. There is no such thing as a card that you can’t cut. As I played against the new Tezzeret the Seeker decks (decks which ran both Painter / Grindstone and Time Vault / Voltaic Key at first, before they became dedicated Vault / Key decks) I realized that Balance was a card that needed to be cut from the main. Balance was a bad Mind Twist; you ran more lands than your opponents (and your Wastelands and Strip Mine traded at parity), so you usually ended up losing a land or two in order to force your opponent to discard some cards. Blue decks were more than a year away from fully embracing Dark Confidant as a draw engine, so I didn’t get value there either. I moved Balance to the sideboard.
I knew that I needed to get better at controlling my opponent’s fast mana. It meant adding another Gorilla Shaman to the deck, but it also meant making me better at playing my creature-based threats. Sphere of Resistances were cut for Thorn of Amethysts. I didn’t have the time that I used to have; while Tutor effects were nice, I needed immediate answers, not ‘answers’ that demanded that I give my opponent the tempo that they needed to bury me. Imperial Seal was cut from the deck.
In the end, I had a new 5CStax deck:
I had a list that violated a slew of the cardinal rules. You weren’t supposed to cut Balance from the main, you weren’t supposed to run Thorns, and you weren’t supposed to cut Imperial Seal. They all went, and I didn’t miss any of them. People were up in arms. The Balance cut was one of the most controversial things that people had seen; they really loved their sacred cows. Still, Nick Detwiler and I ran mirrored 75s, and we tore through people for months on end. They kept telling us that we were wrong, and we kept winning.
“Become a belief collector.”
Dredge got me again in game 1. But I had the board and the experience. Crucible / Waste got him in game 2. Forgemaster carried me in game 3…
Testing groups always matter. When I started my journey of becoming a better Magic player, I had the fortune of coming into a great playtesting group. Mike Lupo, Josh Meckes, Roland Chang, David Ata, Vinnie, and I tested regularly. We’d test in Brooklyn at Roland’s place. Every time that we tested at Roland’s, I made a point of spending a moment or two admiring Roland’s painting: his 2005 Vintage World Championship prize, the alternative Ancestral Recall done by Mark Poole.
I knew what I wanted to do: I wanted to become a Vintage World Champion, and I wanted to win with Workshops. Roland had provided the example. But how should I go about making that a reality?
Knowing where I wanted to go helped. I was able to set a goal and work backwards. Winning with Workshops meant playing well and playing the right list. That meant understanding Shops well enough to build the list and playing against the people who were able to give me the experience that I’d need to win the tough matches against quality opponents.
Goals are important in life. They give you a place to head towards, and they make demands of you along the way. You want to be a champion? Know how to build your deck and why it must be built that way. You want to be a champion? Know how to analyze a match and play with great technical skill. You want to be a champion? Know where you’re going and why you’re going there. Life is never a straight path between two points; there are detours and missteps, but getting there matters.
Having faith that you’re going to get there matters too. When a plane takes off in New York, it might be off a degree or two on its trip to Honolulu. If it continued on that path, never adjusting, it would end up hundreds or thousands of miles off course. But pilots don’t panic; they don’t fear never reaching their destinationâ€”they adjust course and continue on their way. They get where they’re going because they know how to get there. Knowing the path is half the journey. To paraphrase Tom Brady: "When you know all the answers to the test, there’s no reason to be nervous." Spygate aside, he was right.
It’s wasn’t easy, but the prize was worth it. Only by playing against the best can you hope to become one of the best. Blowouts weren’t going to happen all the time. I had to be able and willing to play a real game of Vintage. I had to be capable of beating my opponent by building better than they did, by playing tighter than they did, by knowing my role and playing to the height of my ability.
I started down my path working to become a champion, and while it was difficult, I found that people I needed to enter my life suddenly did. The experience that I needed to gain in order to make my run was something that was suddenly available to me. As I opened up, the world opened up to me.
Beyond being a gentleman and a scholar, Roland Chang was also an exemplary tutor. Roland, to many of us, is simply known as Sensei. I had watched Robert Vroman from a distance; his UbaStax deck was brutally good, and it had many powerful elements that I believed would help tilt the balance of power to it in a match against 5CStax. I liked Uba, and I had a Shop Master I could test against.
Roland brutalized me. In a ten game set, I may have gotten him once. I asked him, at the end of our set, what happened. "I don’t understand. I thought UbaStax had a great 5C matchup."
"Vroman had a great 5C match, not UbaStax. Players beat other players; decks don’t beat other decks." It was an important lesson: there is no such thing as an unwinnable match. The great pilot, well metagamed, was capable of beating supposed ‘bad’ matchups. I had just gone 1-9 against Roland, and yet Vroman left 5C decks broken in his wake. Two Shop Masters helped teach me a lesson that I needed to learn: a well-educated pilot who plays to their best ability can beat anyone at any given time. Never give up hope.
“There’s no abiding success without commitment.”
Dredge was crumbling before me in game two. I had gotten him in the first game. Now Forgemaster found Trinisphere. Then Hellkite. It was over.
One of the toughest things that I’ve ever seen was the aftermath of the theft of Roland Chang’s 5CStax deck. You never want to see something like that happen, especially to someone like Roland.
We all have times in our lives for certain things. Roland had taught me many great lessons, helped me become a much better player, and had done so with the utmost class. It was time for Roland to go, but I was armed and ready for the future.
There comes a time for tutelage to end. At some point, we all have to stand on our own two feet and either succeed or fail on our own. Roland’s leaving was many things, but it was also an opportunity to show that I had the tools to succeed.
“Eat what you kill. Nothing will be given to you.”
Game 1 was lopsided my way. Game 2 he had too much tempo for me. Game 3 was different. My opener had mana and business. I had held the Mana Crypt all game, but the time was right. He had destroyed my Lodestone. I had two Forgemasters in hand. I played my Metamorph, and he destroyed my Sphere in response. "What are you choosing to copy?" He smiled. "Mana Crypt," I replied. He seemed shocked that I’d copy a Mana Crypt against a tempo deck. The following turn I played a Forgemaster. It hit. The second Forgemaster buried him as Titan came down.
Roland had left, but I knew, finally, what I was doing. I watched metagames to develop, and I eventually knew where they were headed. To my right was Vin, always there with a few words of wisdom and a few key suggestions. I was hitting my stride.
5C died when Thirst for Knowledge was restricted. The deck was forced to go in too many directions. It’s too much for 5C which, like all truly great Shop decks, was an elegant hate deck. There were too many opponents, too many things that needed to be hated. Forced to focus on a myriad of opponents, 5C crumbled. There was no ascending Shop deck to take its place.
Detwiler and I had planned on going to Gen Con in 2009, but with the restriction of Thirst, things changed wildly. Shop Aggro, Oath, Dredge, and U/B Bob/Tezz decks were all major players in the environment. 5C couldn’t fight them all at once. We decided not to go to Gen Con. We played in a few small events here and there, though the results were predictably mediocre.
I believe that Magic has seasons. January/February is the equivalent of Opening Day. Once Gen Con has come and gone, it’s time to put the cards away and enjoy the offseason. I was on the sidelines in September, October, and November of 2009, but I watched what was going on. Vin and I spoke about Shops.
"Everyone is saying that Shop is dead. What do you think, Vin?"
"Shop is too powerful a card to ever be dead. It just needs to be completely retooled. 5C might be dead, but the pillar will survive."
Vin played in a December N.Y.S.E. tournament, finishing 9th on tiebreakers with 5C. I asked him what he thought at the end of it. "The deck needs to be more brown. I think you need to lose Welders. I think you need Serum Powders."
Like manna from the heavens, Wizards gave Shop players across the world precisely what they had hoped for: a new weapon. At the end of December of 2009, Lodestone Golem was spoiled. The card seemed too good to be true, but there it was. Once Worldwake was released, I picked up four foil Lodestones.
5C was dead, but there was a myriad of powerful cards that played well with Workshop. The deck needed to be more brown, and then Wizards gave us exactly what we needed: a card that played perfectly into our strategy of being more brown. The Forino family basement generated something entirely new, a Shop deck that wasn’t just an update of an existing deck (like my 5CStax deck), but something that had never been seen before. I put together a Shop deck, using Vin’s suggestion of Serum Powders, and called it Espresso Stax. It was brown, quick, and powerful. The name fit.
“If your only tool is a hammer, treat everything like a nail.”
Game 3. He’s on the play. His Crucible hits. My Metamorph stays in hand, waiting for a better target. When my Forgemaster hit, he spent his Duplicant. But my Metamorph was far more threatening. It copied his Duplicant and removed a Wurmcoil. Top 8 felt close. My own Duplicant ruined a Lodestone. I was there.
Espresso was the first true monster that I could call my own. 2010 was the year of Espresso. Shops were ascendant. As players adapted and threw new ‘answers’ at us, I adapted as well. You’re running Trygon Predators in your blue deck? That’s great; I have Maze of Ith in my sideboard. You’re running a slew of counters to stop my threats? I have Rishadan Ports to wreak hell on your mana base. They came at us from one direction then another, and we adjusted, sending them back.
I slaughtered the most sacred cow along the way. Espresso Stax wanted consistent mana sources; it wasn’t going to win off the back of one Sphere, one Chalice, or one Lodestone. It was going to win off a cacophony of effects. Lotus wasn’t good enough. So I cut it.
I played Espresso Stax to the finals of an N.Y.S.E. Lotus tournament. Sitting across from me was a 73-card mirror in the finals, with another copy in the Top 8. The final copy of Espresso that showed up at the event came in ninth on breakers. In our wake were myriad blue pilots, aggro pilots, Dredge pilots, and other Shop pilots. We had sent them all home. It was a great feeling. When I came back to Vintage in 2005, I was the player who was aggressively netdecking. It was quite humbling for me to see other pilots playing my deck. With the death of 5C and the ascendance of Espresso, I realized that I had done more than build a deck. I had revitalized an archetype.
When Espresso became the target of the metagame, when people began packing serious maindeck hate, I moved to another build. I built a red Shop deck that used Goblin Welder to turn off much of their hate. I called it MUD Marinara.
In 2012 I told myself that in order to become the best Shop pilot that I could be, I wouldn’t run Smokestacks. I felt there was an aspect of Shops that I needed to explore, and I steered myself to Kuldotha Forgemaster. I felt that many of the builds were too clunky. There was too much nonsense at the top of the curve that made mulliganing a very common occurrence. I also wasn’t convinced that Metalworker and Forgemaster needed to be paired together. I worked on a new build of Shops and eventually came up with a Forgemaster build that I liked: Martello Shops.
“The willingness to win is only matched by the willingness to prepare.”
I fanned my opener and saw the only English Sphere of Resistance that I owned. It lived in my sideboard. The deck was speaking to me. I saw a Tormod’s Crypt, mana, and a Forgemaster. This was not a hand that Shop players would keep. But I had tested. It would win. Wurmcoil found a twin in Metamorph that game. He mulled to oblivion in game 3.
It took years to learn my pillar, and it took countless hours of testing to learn the ins and outs. I still make mistakes because I’m still human. But I stopped making excuses for my bad results, I started taking ownership of my decisions, and I learned what it took to get ready for an event. I tested, I tried new things, I did what wasn’t expected, I looked for answers that made sense, and I didn’t look for a ‘magic 75’ that was perfect. I knew that decks were products of metagames, and I knew that my experiences wouldn’t be the same as anyone else’s that day. I did what I could, and I accepted that there would be errors along the way. I was willing to acknowledge my mistakes, grow, learn, and move on with another important point guiding me.
"It’s not daily increase but daily decrease. Hack away the unessential!"
I had gotten greedy. I had Strip lock on him with my opener. All I needed was mana. But I didn’t have room for error, and the deck was punishing me. I drew Hellkite. Then Titan. Then Duplicant. The day was over…
One of the final, great lessons that I learned was this: whatever you are, be a good you. Do what you do. Know who and what you are, know what that means, know where your path is meant to take you, and then travel it.
It won’t always lead to happiness, but it will lead to wisdomâ€”if you’re open to it.
“In life you need either inspiration or desperation.”
So I finished in third place. I forgot myself in a moment, and I ended my tournament because of it. I was forced to remember that key lesson: whatever you are, be a good you. Be a good Forgemaster deck. Be a good Shop deck. Know your role. Adapt, analyze, inculcate those lessons, and continue.
The fire to succeed, to be better than I was, drove me to become a better player. I became one. I’m not perfect. I make mistakes. But I know where I’m going.
At some point in the future, I’ll be back in Brooklyn. I’ll visit a friend. I’ll see a painting on a wall. I’ll feel the fire in my belly. I’ll know, still, that my past doesn’t equal my future.