It is 3:30 pm on Friday afternoon. I’d gotten off to a less-than-ideal start by going 2-3 in the Modern portion of the Pro Tour. I had to win my draft pod to make Day Two of my first rodeo. Still, a month of nights spent drafting with my draft-obsessed Madison hosts had somewhat prepared me for this moment. I walked up to fellow narcissistic careerist Tom Martell, also at 2-3 and feeling similarly despondent:
“Hey, Tom, we’re in different draft pods, right?”
“That’s what â€˜28′ and â€˜30′ mean, yes.”
“Since we both have to 3-0 our drafts to make the cut, any interest in chopping some equity?”
“Sure. Pick a number.”
“Haha, good one. Five.”
After winning, losing, and then conceding my final match to the national champion of Denmark looking for his 15th pro point by way of a Top 200 finish, I encountered a giddy Tom Martell outside, smoking a cigarette and fanning out what can only be described as a 3-0 deck: Sorin Markov, Chandra, the Firebrand, Grim Lavamancer, Call to the Grave, and half a dozen removal spells. Makes my triple Griffin Rider, five Griffin, double Gideon’s Lawkeeper, double Gideon’s Avenger deck look kind of meager by comparison.
“So Drew, how much to buy out of this split?”
“What do you mean?”
“Like, how much would it cost me to have you call off our equity split?”
“How about fifty?”
“How about you Top 8 this Pro Tour, I go find a stable nearby, buy a saddle, show up on Sunday, and sit on the saddle and shout â€˜Yee-haw’ until they kick me out? You can then Paypal me the four thousand.”
After a delicious dinner with a dozen gamers from across the country, I realized that all of my usual drinking companions were turning in early to rest up for Day Two. Left to my own devices, I settled for the “sleep until 1 pm” option. I woke up to a stream of tweets that clued me into Tom’s 6-0 draft performanceâ€”he was still at X-3! He could still Top 8! The dream lives! I showered and hurried to the event site to railbird, arriving just in time for the first round of Saturday’s Modern portion. After watching him Pyromancer’s Swath/Grapeshot his way past B/G Death Cloud with Extirpates, Memoricides, Inquisition of Kozilek, and Thoughtseizes, he walked up to me at the beginning of round 13.
“Sorry, Drew, definitely not winning this Pro Tour.”
“I’m playing John Stolzmann. You know, guy who created mono-blue infect. Awful matchup.”
“Yeah, okay. You’ll crush him.”
After Tom crushed Stolzmann, I started Googling places to buy horse saddles in or around Philadelphia. After all, what could he lose to? Poison was supposed to be his worst matchup, but he just beat it 2-0. He’s definitely good for a Top 8 now.
Rats. Well, we did it once, right? Totally reasonable to do it again. When I got there, Sam and Tom had agreed to let the person on the draw get the inside seat in the arena, acknowledging the tangible drawback of letting a group of spectators see your hand. Sam won the roll, giving me a front-row seat to a hand of Island, Inkmoth Nexus, Blazing Shoal, Dragonstorm, and three cards that don’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. This match wasn’t particularly close, either, but this time it looked pretty hopeless for Tom. To his credit, he battled back to win his next round, intentionally draw with Jon Finkel, and finish exactly 16th. Thanks for not taking the buyout, Tom!
I spent the next two rounds birding Sam, since it looked like he could win-win into Top 8. After he won his Round 16 feature match against Vincent Lemoine’s R/G Through the Breach/Cloudpost deck, it seemed pretty locked up. Indeed, he ended up finishing in seventh place after the Swiss rounds. As he’d been a great friend to me for months and incredibly hospitable for the month that I was working in Madison, I was more than happy to help him prepare for his Top 8.
“Hey, Sam, what can I do to help you for tomorrow morning?”
“Give me a while, not ready to think about that right now.”
One team draft later…
“Hey, Sam, what can I do to help you for tomorrow morning?”
“Meet me at Chipotle in ten minutes.”
Forty-five minutes later, Sam and Jon Finkel walk into the otherwise-patron-less Chipotle, get their food, and we start talking about sideboard strategy. We end up in Sam and Tom’s hotel room. Sam’s quarterfinal matchup against Jesse Hampton, previously thought a bye, turns out to be closer than expected due to Jesse’s eight removal spells for Sam’s infect creatures.
As Sam and Jon tested post-board games of that matchup, I pieced together Josh Utter-Leyton’s Counter-Cat list. Just as I finished, John Stolzmann arrived. We played a dozen games before John called it quits. The score stood at 11-1 in favor of Wrapter’s Zoo deck. We knew we had to pick up percentage in sideboard games, but none of us knew how.
“What’s the worst card in their sideboard against us? All of them seem amazing.”
“Gideon Jura pretty bad.”
“We can Spell Pierce it.”
“Sure, but we’re still just drawing to Echoing Truth if it sticks or we can’t ever win, right?”
“Sure, but they’re probably not going to find that.”
“Yeah, seems pretty awful for us.”
We sideboarded and proceeded to win exactly zero games against Wrapter’s sideboarded list. Every time we had an early kill, Zoo had disruption. Every time the game dragged on, Zoo had one more removal spell than we had protection spell. The matchup seemed abysmal. Tom Martell arrived a little after midnight to a room of Alex West, Gavin Verhey, Jon, John, Sam, me, and a snoring Brian Kowal. He changed his shirt, washed his face, and turned to me:
“Looks like the gang’s all here. Not much we can do right now. Let’s let them test for now, come back in a while, and figure out the Zoo matchup then. Sam and Jon will have the R/G Post matchup figured out, so let’s have everyone else take a crack at Wrapter matchup and break it when we come back.”
“Sounds about right. Okay, so we’ll be back in an hour or so, yeah?”
“Yeah. Let’s go, bars close at two.”
We head over to a bar called Medusa and run into a newly-21 Ben Swartz. After toasting his birthday and dancing for a while, I headed outside with Brad and Tom. The topic turned philosophical as I watched the Player of the Year dissect the differences between his amazing 2010 and lackluster 2011.
“I’m pretty excited that I’ll get to play PTQs again. It’s been a while, you know? It’ll be good to get back to the grind, catch up with the North Dakota players again.”
“Are you serious? PTQing is the worst. I’d rather die than PTQ.”
“Sure, but it’s a social thing, too. Besides, after a while, I’ve come to realize that good players win between 55 and 70% of their matches. They can run a little better or worse than that for a short period of time, but that’s a pretty decent range for a talented player. Their success depends on how good they run. There isn’t as much of a difference between winning and losing as we’d like to think. We think we can control these things, that they’re a product of mindset or whatever, but at the end of the day, you aren’t going to win more than two-thirds of the matches you play. If you do, you’re running good, and ride that, but know that that won’t keep up.”
“Well, Brad, have fun playing PTQs. Who wants to go to Conrad Kolos’s party on the top of some warehouse in the middle of a neighborhood that seems pretty sketchy?”*
*Tom didn’t actually say this, but he might as well have. Given that our taxi driver didn’t know how to get there, we probably should’ve figured out the flavor of the neighborhood we were stepping into. We didn’t. Upon arriving, we realized that the address put Brad, Tom, Chad Kastel, and myself in a narrow alley in between two warehouses. As we walked toward the only door in the alley, a car sped around us, pulled up onto the curb between us and the door, and four guys piled out and started walking toward us. Deciding that discretion was the better part of valor, we turned and hightailed it back to the main street, regrouped, and started calling everyone who we knew to be at this godforsaken party. Five minutes in, we eventually got a hold of Brian Kibler, who was kind enough to send Conrad down to let us in.
Inside was, appropriately enough, an abandoned warehouse. It had three floors, no stairwell lighting, and smelled a little of stale urine. The four of us soldiered onward and upward to be greeted by a rooftop party populated by a crowd of Philadelphia’s finest hipsters and about a dozen Magic players. Music was blasting from a laptop hooked up to a speaker system. A tiny desk lamp threw a little light onto the electronics corner and one end of a table laden with drinks. As I was looking for a mixer to put in my Solo cup of vodka, Brian found me.
“This is orange juice, right?”
“That’s Mad Dog 20/20.”
“Off-brand orange juice?”
I mingled with the Muggle crowd just long enough to get the sense that they all lived in or around the building. Over the course of the hour that I was on the rooftop, the power went out four separate times. As our dreadlocked de facto DJ explained, “It’s just our landlord messing with us, going off on his power trip like he does. He has kids, says the music is too loud, whatever. He’ll turn it back on.” As soon as the power came back, the music went back on blast for a song and a half, then cut out again. Another impassioned speech denouncing the landlord and his mind games. The fourth time this happened, the hipster king turned to the party and fairly yelled, “Hey, guys, the music probably isn’t coming back. Neither is the light. On the upside, this leaves you with no excuse to not be flirting with the nearest girl, so get busy.” Out of thirty people, there were fewer than ten girls.
Since I’m already taken and have no real interest in Philadelphia warehouse-squatter hipster girls anyway, I set off. Armed with my second vodka Pepsi, I decided to explore the warehouse. I descended a flight of stairs, stepped off on the second floor, and was confronted with a ten-foot-high pile of plywood and other lumber. I made my way toward a flickering light at the other end of the room, stepping into a hallway marked only by a sign: “DROP A DEUCE Ã “. I made my way past the erratic, naked light bulb and found a solitary door at the end of the hallway. The sign on the door? “SOMEONE LIVES HERE, DON’T COME IN.” Right, then, time to turn around.
I made my way back to the plywood/lumber room, which I deduced was a bit of an art supply depot for the artistic denizens of the warehouse. I went into another room to find Gerry Thompson looking out the window, stoically surveying the Philadelphia skyline. We joined his girlfriend Kaitlin on the couches in the middle of the room and caught up on his weekend’s stories, as I hadn’t seen him since the end of Day One.
As we chatted, I noticed movement out of the corner of my eye and instinctively recoiled, thinking I had seen a gigantic rat lurking in the shadows of this art studio room. Of course, had I realized how many hipsters I had encountered on the rooftop, I would have easily deduced the truth of the matterâ€”the people of this warehouse had a pet cat. We took him with us back to the party.
Upon returning, Gerry and Kaitlin disappeared into the crowd. I rounded up Tom, Brad, and Brian, and we made our exit from the party along with some Danish players. We quickly realized that we were in a bit of a rough neighborhood and that we’d have to walk a bit if we wanted to find a cab at 4 am. We set out in search of a major boulevard, following Brian’s advice the entire time. Predictably, we soon noticed a pair of heavy-set gentlemen that had followed the same circuitous route as us for the last five blocks. They had been keeping about a block between us and them, but we’d turned four times. Tom very quietly started taking all of his medical cards, driver’s license, and working credit cards out of his wallet.
“Be sure to leave a few bucks in there, though. If you take all of it out, they’ll know, and they’ll beat the s&*t out of you.”
We finally found a gas station, half-jogging the last block into the floodlights of sweet, sweet Sunoco. Predictably, the store was closed and the attendant spoke to us from behind a bulletproof glass window.
“Hey, can you call us a cab?”
Dagger. Just then, our good friends SmÃ©agol and Gollum caught up to us.
“Hey man, what do you guys need?”
“We’re looking for a few cabs back to downtown.”
“Oh yeah? Well, if you go that way about ten blocks (pointing back in the exact direction we had just come from) and turn left on 2nd, there’s cabs there at all hours. Trust me, I’m from New York.”
“Yeahhh, well, thanks a bunch for the help, but we’ll justâ€””
And just then, Brad shrieked “CAB!”, pointed at a taxi stopped at the red light, and started running toward it. Tom, Brad, Brian, and I made it to the doors first, jumped in, and offered our apologies to the Danish. As it turned out, they made it back downtown fine. Play the game, see the world, right?
Tom and I made it back to the hotel around 5 am completely sober and wide awake. Tom tiptoed into the room where Sam was sleeping, grabbed the poison deck and Counter-Cat, and brought them out to the sixth-floor hallway. We picked up where we left offâ€”I was on the play every time and consistently losing to double and triple removal spells. If I had my combo, I didn’t have protection. If I had protection, I didn’t have enough. If I had exactly everything, I was missing a card for Disrupting Shoal’s alternate casting cost, so I died anyway. Finally, I resorted to extreme measures.
“Tom, what if I draw?”
“Well, this matchup seems god-awful, so I’m willing to try anything. I have to ask, though: why?”
“The games are all really grindy. They’re going to play their one-drop even if we do present the potential for a turn-two kill. They’re going to have a removal spell for our guy anyway. Why not out-card them? You aren’t clocking me that hard anywayâ€”you’re turning into more of a midrange deck anyway. The games end on turn five or six one way or another, so why not play toward that game a little more?”
“Sure, fine, let’s try it.”
“Also, if I’m on the draw and you have Aven Mindcensor, I’m cutting Muddle the Mixture, since that card is awful. Spell Pierce seems much better; basically, it’s just Dispel on the turn that matters, since we’ll sort of bottleneck them on mana in that turn regardless.”
“Yup, let’s go.”
I rattled off four wins before he won his first game on the play. We played another couple of games, just to be sure, but the matchup did seem much better with Poison on the draw. We packed it up around 6 am, I texted Sam my sideboard instructions, and signed the message with “Trust me.” I knew it was a long shot that I could sell Sam on choosing to draw against a Wild Nacatl deck in the Top 8 of a Pro Tour, but I knew how the matchup played. This seemed like his best shot to win.
The rest of the story is Sam’s to tell, although I can give you a number that a few people have wondered at since Sunday:
92.6. That’s the percentage chance that Sam Black, in seeing 28 unique cards, draws a Blazing Shoal. The shuffle off of Ponder dropped his chances of hitting Blazing Shoal in that Craig-Jones-Lightning Helix moment to 6.66%. As they say, the devil’s in the details.
Until next week,