Breathing In Vegas

Fresh off of a Grand Prix Top Eight in Modern Masters 2015 Limited, Shaun looks back on what it meant – and felt like – to succeed in such an astoundingly large weekend of tournaments.

Three minutes without air, three days without water, and three weeks without food.


It started on the ride to the airport.

Stress. A steady note of tension in the air, slowly growing.

I’d been in a Magic slump lately. I really wanted to be doing well and playing my best. My preparation and diligence had increased as a result, and it was paying off. I think once you get to a certain level of skill, you get good at assessing how well you’re playing from game to game. It felt like I was back on track and playing at a very high level once again. Nothing beats putting in the work and having a desire to win.

But that didn’t mean I wasn’t still a little worried. Grand Prix Las Vegas would be massive and, based on the numbers, the chances of winning the whole thing would be on par with a snowball’s chance of surviving a nuclear strike.

A small spark of stress inside yourself can quickly become real if it’s fanned a little. A tiny piece of annoyance can combo off and really get under the skin.

My brother was breathing loudly. It was annoying.

If you’re like me, you don’t want to tell someone they’re annoying you. Mostly because it makes them feel bad. I sure don’t like being told I’m being annoying. Even done it a polite way, it means you’re doing something wrong.

But who is actually doing anything wrong in this situation? The person making a tiny noise or the person who isn’t even going to speak up and ask them to be quiet instead of stewing in their own juices?

I decided to say something. Obviously as diplomatically as possible.

Excuse me, dearest brother, but your breathing is perhaps a tad loud. The whistling coming out of your face holes would upset the most stoic of monks and are just a little bit distracting to my thought processes. I know you’re competing in the same tournament and feeling the same set of jitters as I am.

I know this is just my own insecurities showing and you aren’t doing anything wrong, but if you could turn off your nasal wind tunnel I would be forever grateful. I hope you understand my point of view and we can continue to have an enjoyable car ride to the airport. Here are some tissues and an ice cream scoop if you wish to clear your nose.


Your loving brother, Shaun McLaren

As you can guess, my brother understood my reasonable request completely, and everything went great from that point onward. But it was an interesting lesson. When we get nervous, our breathing gets constricted. I quickly realized that my breathing was also shallow and was able to correct it.

Slow deep breaths into the stomach and slowly out once more. The stress and tension inside yourself evaporates. Any annoyance evaporates. Instead of saying anything at all I could’ve just focused on my own breathing, no longer been annoyed, and then reminded my bro how awesome deep breathing is. I’m convinced it’s nearly impossible to be angry when you’re focused on your breathing.

And yet it’s so incredibly easy to forget to breathe and start to feel bad, unhappy, and frustrated. Why must humans be like this? What the heck is wrong with us and why is it so hard to control? Even people fortunate enough to be happy a good deal of the time are always going to encounter some moments of sadness, anger, and stupidity.

Magic is hard.

There are so many things to keep track of. Expecting to get everything right is ridiculous. I know when I play I’m usually hunched over my cards, thinking, thinking, thinking. Shallow intakes of breath through my chest instead of the proper way, deep into my lungs ballooning out my stomach.

How can I be expected to do well at Magic if I can’t even do the simplest human need properly?

Keep it simple.

Breathing would be my focus for Vegas.


Just walking to the convention center sapped the water from me. My usually luscious lips have been chapped since I got here and I’ve been chugging back water like rain is going out of style.

Of course there are plenty of other liquids to be drinking in Vegas, but those would have to wait. There is a tournament to be winning. Water is what my body needs in this heat.

The truth is I love Vegas, it represents the best and the worst of us. Look at what we can do! Build a pleasure hub in the middle of the freaking desert. Come one, come all! Enjoy the shared experience of losing your money and your senses! Not necessarily in that order. The opulence of Vegas is amazing, but sometimes it can take too much. Vegas is what we think we want, not what we need.


What happens when you have your basic needs met?

Pop out some children, say “Sorry for the global warming, good luck” and hope they figure it out?

Expressing yourself? Helping others? Doing what you love? Competition? Magic? Sell all your possessions to run into the woods and hunt and sleep under the stars? Build igloos for chilly penguins?

I had written a guide for Modern Masters Sealed and received a great pool. I built a Temur Ramp deck with Primeval Titan and Banefire and sailed through Day One to an 8-1 record.

The largest Grand Prix in history is likely also going to have the softest field of players in recent memory. It just makes sense because you’re diluting the number of pros, and the format had plenty of valuable cards to open for those not expecting to make a deep run.

I felt drafting five colors would be an excellent strategy going into Day Two. Many people would be inexperienced with the format and be looking to go all-in on Affinity or something similar. Not everyone is comfortable drafting five colors in any format, since it requires juggling more factors as you draft, and I have been doing it forever, especially in Cube and various Ravnica sets.

And it worked! My first deck was excellent, Temur Ramp splashing black, with Wildfire and Savage Twister, very similar to my eventual Top 8 deck. It yielded a fairly easy 3-0. My next deck was a little more “interesting.” It was Four Color Control with blue and was clunky as heck with Apocalypse Hydra and Battlegrace Angel being the workhorses. Still, the deck performed and I managed to take my first match thanks to Artisan of Kozilek returning Battlegrace Angel and absorbing four removal spells. Then I was paired against Affinity which should just run my deck over, except I had five artifact removal spells in my sideboard (along with a Terashi’s Grasp maindeck) that carried me to victory.

And just like that I was drafting in the Top 8. It feels especially great making it in an event you have no expectations for since you’re battling through so many rounds with so little room for error. Here’s what I drafted:

I felt the draft went incredible and though I was going to easily win the whole shebang. Unfortunately I ran into a far durdlier (AKA superior) deck than my own in the quarterfinals with bouncelands, hard removal, and big threats. My deck was better suited for dealing with aggro and that means I failed to win the control war. Once again a GP title eludes me despite feeling like I have a great deck. Overconfidence crushes me under its boot yet again.


Now here I sit relaxing at a buffet with my bro for some afternoon dining and reflection. It feels good, having a full belly and a recent GP Top 8. Not much more you can ask for than that.

Vegas has lots of delicious places to eat. It’s not hard to overindulge, especially at a buffet. Always wanting more and more no matter what you already have on your plate is not a good way to live. I’m eating slow, appreciating each bite, and looking forward to the next. It’s a weird feeling, to be hungry and full at the same time.


Three minutes without air, three days without water, and three weeks without food. But how long can you survive without love?

I realize that sounds like the tag-line to an incredibly sappy romantic movie (or possibly survival horror). The pragmatic answer is you don’t need love to survive, although it will probably increase your lifespan. The movie answer is that love gives you a reason to go on living.

There are plenty of places to find “love” in Sin City.

There are also plenty of different kinds of love. There’s romantic love, family love, friendship love, self-love, love formed from a shared experience. If I say “I love you” to a friend it probably means a different thing than when I say it to my mom. It can even be a little weird since there are such very very different types of love from “I care about you and I am also attracted to you” to “I care about you and like that you exist and you make me snort chocolate milk out my nose.”

Language is woefully inadequate for describing these things. There is also the type of universal love. A love for everything. It is also love for rocks, shades of green, lamps. Even stronger is the love for every person. Humanity. Our brains and our sentience. It isn’t exclusive, it transcends nationality, differences, and topdecks. This is the love we all have access to no matter what.

I have a lot of nostalgia from the road trips our family would take down to Vegas each winter. The world, and Vegas, looks very different from the way it did when I was a kid. You don’t just see the shining lights and happy performers. Now there’s a complicated layer to peel back that isn’t always pretty. But even that layer can be beautiful and lovable under the lights.

My fear is telling me this article is Pretentious, Pretentious, Bad, Bad, Lame. I should be communicating my ideas better and giving you the reader a better article reading experience. But it’s difficult sharing a piece of myself so thanks for bearing with me.

Next week I’ll have lots of Jeskai talk in Modern and I guarantee there will be plenty of decklists just in time for Grand Prix Charlotte.

Here’s to what makes life worth living.