Black Magic – Travels With Jasper

Tuesday, September 28th – After arriving in Baltimore with nowhere to stay, we finally found a hostel. Jasper was reluctant. He said he didn’t know anything about hostels except for that one movie.

We have some time now, so let me tell you a story.

On Wednesday, September 15th, days before StarCityGames.com Open: Baltimore, I saw talk on Facebook and Twitter about people going. Not having anything important to do in Madison that weekend, I decided to check the price of a plane ticket. I was surprised that it was under $200, which seemed pretty reasonable, so I asked around to see if anyone wanted to go with me.

Brian Kowal and Patrick Chapin were taking a break from traveling — but Jasper Johnson-Epstein, a kid from Madison who you’ll hear more about in coming years, was oddly excited about going when I told him the flight was from Milwaukee. It lined up perfectly with other plans he had to go to Milwaukee anyway, and after Grand Prix Portland he was excited about playing Magic.

I hadn’t made up my mind about whether I wanted to go. I was just seeing how other people felt about it. I got the impression from others that it probably wasn’t worth it, but Jasper

wanted me to go… And like I said, I wasn’t doing anything, and I’m happy to encourage more talented local players to travel, so I agreed to do him a favor and go with him.

I didn’t book a hotel when I booked my flight because I was hoping to find other people to come, too, and Gaudenis Vidugiris wasn’t online at the time. When I talked to him, he said he needed a break too, and I put off getting a hotel a little further. On Friday before leaving, I looked into the price of a hotel online; I couldn’t find any rooms at a reasonable price, so I posted on Facebook asking if anyone had space and left for Baltimore, hoping someone would comment and offer something by the time I got there.

…yeah, I’m optimistic.

The plan was for me to pick Jasper up at his girlfriend’s place in Milwaukee, then go to Chapin’s because he’d agreed to take us to the airport so that I could leave my car by his place rather than parking at the airport. My flight was at 7:00 p.m., which meant I’d be going through Milwaukee at rush hour. Chapin called early in the afternoon to talk about my plans and suggested that I leave early because traffic would probably make it take forty-five minutes to go from his place to the airport, and it would make it take longer to get to his place to begin with.

Traffic was particularly bad getting into Milwaukee. Chapin called and asked where I was; I told him I was stuck in traffic. He offered to pick Jasper up and meet me somewhere, but I couldn’t think of any reasonable way to reroute things to save time. I thanked him for the offer and told him not to worry about it; making the flight was my problem. I called Jasper and told him that I was stuck in traffic, but I should be there in a couple minutes and he should get ready. He said it was no problem, and he had some stuff he needed to take care of anyway.

I got outside his place at 5:45 and called him to come out. He said that he was busy and would be out soon. I explained that we were running very late for our flight and had no time. He turned off his phone.


I called Chapin and told him I have no idea what’s going on or how long we would be — but again, don’t worry about it. He told me I could still make the flight, but only if I left right now. He tried to convince me to just leave Jasper, but the whole reason I was going was because Jasper wanted me to. If we miss the flight, I’ll just try to hold him accountable if we can’t get there. Besides, what if I leave and he comes out thirty seconds later? He can’t be that long. I’ll wait it out.

…And before I’m off the phone, I see him coming out.

When he got into the car, he looked pretty rough, so I didn’t ask any questions or gave him a hard time. On the way to Chapin’s, he made some comment about breaking up with crazy girls. We got to Chapin’s and into his car, and he took us to the airport. He was kind of lecturing us about how much sense it makes to try to get to airports very early, which I agree with, but couldn’t have done much about in this case. Somehow, the road was basically empty and we got to the airport with just under half an hour until our flight left. We ran a bit and got onto the plane without issue. Pretty lucky.

As the plane took off, we agreed that after running through the airport, we were both very thirsty. Jasper asked me if they’d get mad if he got up to try to get some water as we were taking off, and I told him it would be fine — but he needed to wait until the seatbelt sign is off.

The sign went off, and beverage service started. When it got near us, Jasper asked if he could have a lot of water, because he was quite dehydrated. The stewardess told him she could give it to him when she got to him, but she was serving other people now. They ran out of something and walked away, and Jasper took the water bottle off the cart, but wasn’t quite bold enough to just drink out of it. He “hit” it on the seat between us.

The stewardess got back and saw that her water was missing, then saw it on the seat. She lectured Jasper about how that water isn’t his, and it’s for everyone, and he needs to wait his turn. He offered to give it back; she said that he can keep it now that he took it, but it’s not okay.

Jasper chugged the entire thing.

Quite a bit later, a man came up from the front of the plane and demanded Jasper’s credit card. Jasper said he didn’t have one, and the man said that Jasper stole the water and has to pay for it, being very patronizing in his explanation that “Stealing is taking something that isn’t yours — that water was on the cart!” Jasper apologized, but said he doesn’t have a credit card and that the stewardess said he could have it; the man threatened to have security meet him at the gate when we land, but eventually gave up.

Classy plays all around.

We landed, and I still hadn’t heard from anyone about a room. I knew that Friday Night Magic was happening, so I thought it would be fine — we’d just go to the site and try to find someone. We got on the train and took it downtown. We sat in a mostly-empty car, but we were immediately joined by a group of girls who looked like they just got off work in the restaurants in the airport; they all started talking at the same time and basically sounded like a classroom in “The Wire.”

We got off the train when it got downtown, just as it was getting absolutely mobbed by people leaving some kind of event. There were people all over downtown Baltimore at 10:45 on a Friday night. We walked a few blocks to the hotel, where FNM’s being held. I planned to walk in, look for people I know, and ask them if they had any leads on a room that might have some space. When we got to the room, there were only around twenty people left. FNM had clearly ended, and it was just some judges and some games of EDH. No players I knew, just some staff. Jasper immediately proclaimed something about “World Champion Sam Black” needing a room as loudly as he could. I did my best to slink back, but failed to vanish. That was

what I had in mind.

No one had anything, so I went into the lobby of the hotel to plug in my phone and research our options. I did a search for nearby hostels and found something four blocks away for $30 a night. Perfect; that’d be fine. I told Jasper that was what we should do, and he was reluctant. He said he didn’t know anything about hostels except for that one movie. Great. I explained what they are and how they work, and we agreed to walk over there. Right — that was the one hitch. The number for reservations closed at 11 (it’s now only 11:08), and that may or may not be a problem if we tried to get in there. The site said you could register online 24/7, which I somehow convinced myself was a good sign.

We walked to the hostel and the door was locked. We rang the bell; no help. Some other guests came back and went in, but going in after them seemed like a bad idea. We stood outside and discussed our options. Jasper was in favor of going back to the ballroom where FNM was held and sleeping under a table; alternatively, we could hop the fence of the large church across the street and sleep on their lawn.

in favor of walking another six blocks and getting a terrible hotel for $90.

More guests come through, and offered to try to get someone official for us at the hostel. No one was there. There was nothing we could do. We talked to the random people at the hostel some. They very friendly, offering to lend us some sleeping bags when Jasper said that we might have to sleep outside. I told them that wouldn’t be necessary.

My phone ran out of power. Now, I didn’t know where the hotel I had in mind was. I agreed to go back to the ballroom, where Jasper wanted us to sleep. On the way there, he suggested other alternatives, like that bench in the lobby of this apartment building, or staying up all night in some twenty-four hour establishment. I wasn’t having it.

We got to the ballroom and there were still a few people playing EDH. I watched them for a bit and Jasper set up his play mat to test Standard, which I’m not really into. I plugged in my phone, the EDH game ends, they leave, and we were alone in the ballroom.

Jasper got a text from his best friend: “I know what you did, we’re not friends.”

Jasper went on life tilt and started frantically making calls and texts to try to figure out what’s going on. I used my phone to call people I knew who might have space; no luck. As Jasper’s situation started sounding worse, I decided that there was no way I was letting him have no place to stay tonight on top of his life falling apart, and told him to talk with me while he was on the phone. He did. We got outside and down the street. His phone call ended, he asked me where we were going, and I told him the hotel. He said no, he’s sleeping in the ballroom. I told him I was getting the hotel and he was coming with me.

We got a tiny room in a run-down hotel that I later found out had the worst shower I’ve ever used. They didn’t have any vacancies the next night — but somehow, I wasn’t too bothered with that (the people at the hostel also said that the hostel had no vacancies), and one of the guys we were talking to had no idea where he was going to stay the next night. Finding a room while we’re at the tournament would have to be a high priority — but I was still very optimistic about my chances, once I was actually in a room with a bunch of people I know.

Jasper managed to reach his girl, they talked for awhile, I hung out in the hall. By around 2:00 a.m. it sounded like Jasper had some of his problems sorted out, but things were by no means going well for him. We were able to get to sleep.

I’ll be talking about Magic soon, but it’s not the focus. I did warn you that I’m taking this time — the time before I’ve really started thinking about Scars, the time after all the old formats are dead — to tell a story.

In the morning, we went to the site. I was playing Fauna Mythic, like what I played at Nationals, but with Planeswalkers instead of Vengevines and more
Sovereigns instead of Titans. Jasper was playing
Josh Utter-Leyton’s deck from Nationals

, but with three maindeck Linvala, Keeper of Silences. That ended up working out really well for him, as he played something like six mirror matches in nine rounds.

I needed a few cards, and walked around the room looking for them and a place to stay. Tim Aten offered to hook us up with a place to stay, since there were only two people in his room. Very lucky. I figured out the room situation before I even found any cards. Everyone, including the dealers, were out of Linvalas — but I eventually managed to track down everything I need just in time. The one Roil Elemental I decided to add to my sideboard to help against Soul Sisters was the last card I found.

Round one, I sat next to Jasper. He crushed someone playing a Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle homebrew with cards like Mage Slayer. I narrowly lost a mirror match in which I mulliganed to a bad hand in game one, which put me on the draw in game three.

Next round, I played terribly and won against Vampires, but it was pretty clear that I wouldn’t be getting anywhere today. My heart wasn’t in it; I lost in the first round, and I’m kind of looking forward to playing an EDH side event. Clearly, I got crushed, ultimately losing to Omar, from Florida, one of the guys who lent me a Linvala. Apparently, during our match, his stuff got stolen from under his chair.

The theft at this event was unreal. People were working hard to actively swipe stuff, not just picking up your stuff if you left it somewhere. Actually, it was even worse than that: this event featured actual Next Level Theft.

On day one, people scouted the traders to see who had the best binder. On day two, they came back with a binder full of junk and asked to trade with the guy who had the binder full of duals and Jaces and some Power Nine. Once the binder was in his hands, the guy literally just took off running. When he was almost stopped in the hall, he said he had a gun, then got outside into a car that was waiting for him.

I hope that’s just a Baltimore special and not the kind of thing traders can look forward to at future events.

But let it be a warning: if you’re trading serious money, you might want to try to only trade with people you trust.

Anyway, back to Saturday. I was dead and looking to EDH. I signed up and birded the

booth until the event fired, obviously missing the announcement, triggering the now-traditional, “Sam Black, your EDH tournament is waiting for you” announcement that drew laughs from everyone in Grand Prix Columbus.

My EDH deck is a thing of beauty. It was the Azusa, Lost but Seeking deck that Zac Hill and Tom LaPille borrowed to gunsling — er, compete — in the Champion Challenge at US Nationals. It’s sixty lands and a few awesome spells. I hope to find a chance to write about it later. Anyway, in this game I got off to a slow start, but eventually took all the turns with Emrakul, even though my first extra turn with Emrakul was Mindslavered. It was a fun game.

After that, they were running a Legacy tournament to practice for the next day, and I figured that was the best thing I could do. I started getting my Legacy deck together, and discovered I’d left a little bit of it at home. Awkward. I had enough cards on me to throw a Merfolk deck together, and decided to do that. It wasn’t an ideal build at all. Basically, the entire sideboard was hate for creatures of different colors — Submerge, Blue Elemental Blast, Seasinger, Umezawa’s Jitte, a Mind Harness — and in the maindeck, I was trying a single Preordain.

I lost my last two (of four) rounds to Zoo and decided I wanted to play something different the next day.

Meanwhile, Jasper was crushing the Standard tournament until he got a text from his girl and, with twenty minutes left in the round, told me he was going to go call her. I told him that was probably a bad idea, since he was in the middle of the tournament and didn’t know how the call would go. He said it would be fine. He came back fifteen minutes later and his face was bright red with rage. There was some shouting and slamming of chairs, and he needed to go outside. The judges were extremely supportive and allowed him an extension on starting his round, which was awesome, but his tournament fell apart from there and he narrowly missed the top 8.

He’d probably say the spin I’m putting on this is unsubstantiated; he’d say that it wasn’t the call, he just happened to lose at the end. The world may never know.

After the tournament, I barely managed to assemble a group to go the Cheesecake Factory (if I’m going to sit down to eat at a chain, I’d like it to be this one every time, and there was one three blocks away). And after a fun and tasty dinner, we went back to the hotel to sleep.

The next morning I was planning to play lands, but had visions of building a sweet control deck with Innocent Blood, Swords to Plowshares, Counterspell, Hymn to Tourach, Esper Charm, and Fact or Fiction. I came to my senses a little and decide I can’t play that deck in a tournament without testing it ever, and just play Lands.

My take on Lands is pretty unconventional at this point; I think Tolaria West seems offensively slow and like a complete waste of time. Rather than slowing the deck down and giving it more options, I build it to get its engine going as fast and consistently as possible. Yes, bad things can happen, but rather than worrying about what might go wrong and what layers of backup plans I might need, I’d rather just claim that my game plan is strong enough to have a chance against everything and start executing it as quickly as possible. Cutting blue also allows me to block islandwalkers, which is pretty sweet.

My sideboard was somewhat haphazardly thrown together and I was missing some cards, but I was pretty happy with the list I played anyway:

My first three rounds all failed to reach a natural conclusion — which is to say that we ran out of time. In the first round, I played against a B/W enchantment-based Prison deck with Helm of Obedience and Leyline of the Void as its kills. Playing against a deck with four maindeck Leyline of the Voids was an awkward way to start the tournament. For games two and three, I got to bring in enchantment removal after conceding game one to Leyline+Moat. After some lucky Krosan Grip topdecks and one unlucky Gamble miss, I found myself one turn away from killing my opponent with Mishra’s factory in extra turns in game three.

Round two I played against a Kowal/Nelson-style Rock deck, which is easy game one, but I think he boarded in a full set of Extirpates — the last card I want to play against. In game two he Extirpated my Loams, but my Factories have done some damage to him. He had Phyrexian Arena and no creatures, while I had three Maze of Iths and it looked like I might actually kill him with his own Arena and one hit from Barbarian Ring if he isn’t careful, so I had to play it out. I got one turn away before he used Swords to Plowshares on his Dark Confidant, and played a bunch of Tarmogoyfs and killed all my Mazes. I probably should have known it couldn’t come together.

Game three I knew I needed to get Chalice of the Void on one before I could use my Life from the Loams. Unfortunately, given my hand, that meant getting Chalice down before I could get an Exploration or Manabond in… so we were looking at a long grind with no acceleration and I didn’t know if one land a turn was powerful enough. He Vindicated my Chalice and I Gambled for another and put it on one again, and time was called before I got to have any idea if I would be winning this one. Much to my surprise, he offered to concede without my even asking him. He said that both of us starting 0-0-2 didn’t appeal to him, and he thought I had a better chance to make it far in this tournament than he did. Thanks.

Round three was against Counterbalance, which was a pretty good matchup, but he didn’t want to concede game one for some reason when I clearly had him locked out. And he managed to set up a Counterbalance lock in game two, with a Tarmogoyf to put enough pressure on to stop me from finding a Krosan Grip. I don’t remember the details of game three, but I think I was winning by a lot, yet far from killing him when we ran out of turns.

The next several rounds were pretty easy and I battled my way back to 4-0-2. Things were starting to look up from where I was after round three, when I thought I’d just never be able to finish a match.

Jasper, who had started out 2-0 with a slight modification on
Saito’s Merfolk deck

, lost three in a row from there and told me he wanted to go to the airport and try to get on an earlier flight. I told him that doesn’t really work these days. Almost every airline charges $50-100 to change flights on the same day, and I was pretty sure they wouldn’t put you on a flight for another day no matter what. If he wanted to leave, he’d have to buy a ticket — but he was determined. He borrowed my phone to look up their number, called, and asked to talk to someone higher up when he was told it would be $103 to leave on the next flight. He managed to bargain it down to sixty-something, and was off for the airport.

Note that our flight back was Monday morning at 7 a.m., and getting a hotel only to leave at 5 a.m. for the airport didn’t make a lot of sense to me, so my plan was to hang out with him all night and then catch our flight. This wasn’t a Grand Prix or a Pro Tour, where people from all over the country would be hanging out Sunday night waiting for their flight back. This was a tournament that almost everyone drove to, and they’d be looking to leave early on Sunday to get home and go to sleep before work the next day. Oh well. I’d figure something out.

In the second to last round, I had a Feature Match against Madness Survival. Game one I managed to lock him out with Glacial Chasm, carefully playing around his ability to Force my Life from the Loam by not activating Manabond to put six lands into play one turn so that I could cast two Loams.

Games two and three were a nightmare, though; he got Faerie Macabres and Natural Order. In theory, Natural Order might not be that big of a problem, because I can just try to keep someone off four mana. The problem is that his deck has lots of basic lands and Noble Hierarch, so the best I can do is try to lock him out with Rishadan Port. The problem is that Porting a deck with Survival of the Fittest and Brainstorm wasn’t really that profitable; most of his spells were very cheap, and he would often be able to use the mana in response.

Basically, the matchup is a serious problem after sideboarding. If this becomes a major concern, a combination of Extirpate and Perish seems like a realistic way to fight that deck — though the matchup is still hard, because they have so many good cards against you, thanks to their ability to search for multiple Faerie Macabres.

Going into the last round, I thought I was locked into something like 18th at best — but I think I failed to account for people who had a draw, or maybe there was an unintentional draw in the last round that bumped me up or something. Either way, finishing 16th was a happy surprise.

After the tournament, I didn’t really know anyone who was going to be sticking around, so I was left trying to hang out at the site to entertain myself for as long as possible. Drew “The Sheriff’s First Victim” Levin was playing a short, non-collectible card game called Flash Duel with a friend. I asked them to teach me, since I’m always interested in playing new games, and tagged in for a couple games (it’s very short), then someone asked to play some EDH. I tried out my new Rafiq of the Many deck, designed only for one-on-one play. I determined that that deck completely fails at the goal of an EDH deck. Basically, it just wins immediately in a way that is completely non-interactive and not flashy, and plays out the same way every game. They were some of the least interesting games of Magic I’ve ever played. After he got bored of that, I played a game with Azusa that was much more interesting, but he had to leave in the middle of it.

Drew and his friends, a group of ten or so, agreed to get food moderately locally so that I could hang out with them, and then left to get their cars, saying they’d come back to the site to get me.

Much more time than I expected passed, and I started to think someone decided they were in a hurry and the group moved on. It would have been understandable, since groups can be hard to organize, but then Drew came in to get me. We followed his friends to an IHOP.

And when I said “IHOP,” I meant “the middle of nowhere.” We got out of the cars and they said it was supposed to be here. I took out my phone and searched for IHOP. We were in the middle of the city, all the IHOPs were just off the highway around the city, so we were about as far from every IHOP as possible.

Smart phones are pretty important for traveling.

Discussing our options with them, it turned out they were all ultimately heading South. The airport was south. I found a 24-hour diner near the airport, and we went there, and Drew agreed to take me to the airport after we ate.

Driving around, he asked me if I always do this — meet up with random groups of people I don’t know. Not always, but whenever possible. I always try to avoid just eating with people I see all the time when I’m at events, but most of the time I’m mostly with people I know, but don’t see often.

I had some good talks with Drew, and general good times that night. I went into the airport at around 2 a.m., and considered myself lucky to find a section of the BWI airport with a bunch of couches, and slept for a few hours before my flight.

When I got back, my girlfriend, Lex, asked me how my trip was. I didn’t know how to answer.

The tournaments didn’t go especially well, several of my plans fell through, nothing really went as smoothly as I expected, the guy I was traveling with abandoned me… but ultimately, it was actually pretty sweet. It was all dealing with a kind of adversity I’m very used to, and getting by in situations like that is generally kind of fun. It was nice to have a chance to help Jasper out when he weekend was going badly, and I got to meet several people.

I think one top sixteen out of the two tournaments at a StarCityGames.com Open is about my mode result, and I think my mean takeaway is a little higher, since the tops when I top 8 increase my results by more than the times when I miss decreases them. I think the EV on money in the strictest sense isn’t quite there for me to fly to these tournaments, but it’s not too bad — and if I have nothing else going on, the times, connections, and experiences can easily make up for it.

I guess that can probably be said for most all of tournament Magic for most players.

Thanks for reading,