Chatter of the Squirrel – An Ode to the Magic Pro Tour

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Wednesday, May 28th – I arrived in Hollywood laden with hopes and expectations; I left disappointed but eerily satisfied, defeated but irrevocably changed. As a player and as a person I learned a great deal about myself as a result of this trip, and in this article I will attempt to chronicle some of those changes…

I arrived in Hollywood laden with hopes and expectations; I left disappointed but eerily satisfied, defeated but irrevocably changed. As a player and as a person I learned a great deal about myself as a result of this trip, and in this article I will attempt to chronicle some of those changes, even as I attempt to extricate myself from the unassailable curtain of huzun that has descended over me in the final throes of my professional Magic career.

The Turkish author Orhan Pamuk talks about huzun explicitly in his memoir Istanbul, and it provides the central theme for many (if not most) of his novels. He characterizes it as a pervasive and omnipresent melancholy born out of the awareness of one’s situation relative to society at-large, a sense of failure born of loss and hopelessness. For the city of Istanbul, he says, the burden of everyday living amid the ruins of a once-great empire fosters a cultural huzun brought about by the stark contrast between the two eras.

For me personally, I realized, loss weighs upon me in ways I had heretofore never confronted and never had occasion to confront. Five seconds around me and you can tell I’m hardly a depressed person, and yet there is something about the awareness of the possibility of nothingness that fosters inside of me a profound sadness akin to the emotion of mourning. It may partially be my Senecan stoicism, brought on by a years-long process of religious awakening in my early teens, that has tempered any elation with the knowledge of its end, stymied any sadness with a drive to make things better yet again. But both of these processes require the opportunity to reform. Faced with the end of college and the great scattering-about of many of my closest friends to the far corners of the earth, the upcoming year in Malaysia and its subsequent loss of contacts, and the great ticking clock of life rendering the Pro Tour a pastime novelty, I have been forced to realize how many of my closest friends I may never see again.

People are my fuel. I love to meet a stranger, love to form relationships and study minds and admire life as a work of art. My huzun, then, stems only from a metaphorical loss, the loss of a system of relations that have sustained me my entire life. The notion of someone permanently being wrested from me by the momentum and inertia of my own chosen path – the realization that to make any choice is to necessarily exclude the set of other choices from their participation in my reality – is crippling. Absent a large and vibrant family, I’ve relied upon my friends. The dissolution of those friendships – their passive dissolution, caused not by the ignition of some virulent stick of dynamite, an argument, a fight, a disagreement, but rather by the slow and grinding millstone of inattention – is like a chorus of murders that I myself commit.

So for every pang of joy I felt this weekend – the conversations with Grgur, the shared stories with Stuart, the fist-pumps with the Belgians at the announcement of Marijn’s second set of Sunday lights – came the knowledge that, in all likelihood, I’d never see these people again. With the Americans it was a little better, as I’ll be at Nationals, at Indy, at the one-or-so PTQ a year I could navigate between law-school finals and government appointments when I get back. But it’s the Pro Tour that brought me into touch with everyone else from everywhere else, gave me friends from four continents, provided for me (on top, of course, of innumerable good times) an insight as a political scientist into the daily life of a Croatian, a Brazilian, a Belgian, a Brit.

It’s through this lens, then, that I hope you’ll view my Pro Tour: Hollywood Report as less a chronological recitation of facts and more a transposition of the emotive force of the events as I experienced them.

There’s the deck, of course:

The sideboard Sowers should probably be either Warhammers (thanks Grgur) or Razormane Masticores (thanks PV), but other than that I’m happy with the decklist – happy, of course, describing my endorsement of the deck’s success, not the feeling I get when I play it. Stan van der Velden (who is awesome, by the way) managed an 8-0 Day 1 with the same exact list, and I myself started out 4-0 and made Day 2 despite a concession to LSV, so I will vouch that it can win games – though our respective Day 2 performances I will attribute to a different cause, which I’ll explain later.

It may surprise some of you that I played Faeries, given my penchant for off-the-wall creations and my compulsive desire to break open formats. It sure surprised me. It also might seem a touch awkward, given that I had access to Stuart’s RB deck three and a half weeks ago when he suggested in an e-mail that we change Grave Pacts to Furystoke Giants and changed exactly three cards in the maindeck from that point on (though, to be fair, Magi of the Moon were a potent innovation, but I’d expect no less from such a master as Stuart). I also had access to Marijn’s R/G list from the Top 8. So why the format’s huge pink elephant?

Part of it came simply from results. I had tested this format more than anything in recent memory, and nothing I threw at Faeries could beat it. I could never win games with the R/G list, and the Belgians reported that Stuart’s deck underperformed and so I never devoted time to testing it. When the PT finally rolled around and it became apparent that R/B was actually crushing everything, I still felt that I hadn’t playtested it enough to maximize the deck’s full potential. Faeries, meanwhile, I’d piloted for over a month, and had probably played more mirror-matches than most people in the room. This increased my confidence to the point I felt I’d have a better chance at winning with it over anything else – especially given the Thoughtseize maindeck, which had its problems but which I felt would get me out of any unpredictable circumstance and could give me an edge in the game 1 Bitterblossom wars.

The other part came from my history with Constructed Pro Tours. It never ceases to amaze me how willing people are to play things that just pack it in to the best deck in the room – a fact made evident by the Top 8 of this very tournament – and I wanted to exploit that to my advantage, particularly since much of Day 2 would be populated by those decks that dodged the 30% of the field that chose to pilot the Fae and cruised to the second day on pairings alone. Also, people historically tend to overestimate their chances against the best deck in the format simply because they want it to work, particularly if their playtesting has incorporated players who aren’t particularly skilled at playing the deck. Finally, I loved the deck’s manabase, with twenty-five (plus one) lands ensuring a minimum of mana screw while the fact that eight (nine) of them also either got into the red zone or dominated the table by themselves protected against mana flood. It was just fundamentally very, very sound.

So I played Faeries. What went wrong, then?

The single greatest problem sprung forth neither from me nor the deck, but rather from my relationship with the deck. I simply hated playing it. In playtesting, everything is so mechanical that you hardly realize what you’re doing, and the tuning/refining process is so engaging that I’m enchanted by nearly everything. I’m one of those people who is keenly interested in whether playing 3 or 4 of a card is actually correct, in whether Pestermite or Vendilion Clique is not only the “better card” but also translates to more match-wins than its alternative, in whether a given gambit will or will not pay off. Come actual game-time, though, playing the deck was exhausting, and by round 8 I wanted to throw my deck in the garbage – and I had eight more rounds to go at that point! It’s not that it’s mindless, or that it’s easy to play, or that it’s somehow not my style. It’s that so many of the games you just lose, plain and simple, and more than half the time it seemed I was just not at all an agent in what was happening to me. Part of that I will admit stemmed from the substitution of Pestermite with Thoughtseize, since you lost some of your ability to recover from an opponent’s tempo-boost, while at the same time fostering that feeling of inevitability I was just describing because you could sculpt your entire gameplan in advance. But so much of the time I’d keep a perfectly reasonable hand on the draw against Elves (or whatever), happen not to have the Terror, and get absolutely blown out. Or I’d suspend a Visions on turn 1, play a Bitterblossom turn 2, and the opponent was just not even close to being in the game. Furthermore, even if you are behind, you know exactly what you need to draw to put you ahead. Having playtested so many games with the deck, it seemed like I was frequently saying “okay, will I draw a Scion or Clique or Command,” and the respective plays were obviously sculpted out for me based on whether I did or did not draw the needed card. Because you have zero redundancy, furthermore, you’re incredibly draw-dependent since every card in your deck is peculiarly functional, and absent any library-manipulation (Vision is less a library-manipulation spell and more a raw-power game-win enabler) you’re just looking to draw the right piece. Potentially, the four Ponder Adrian and I were plotting to add to the deck (in favor of a Thoughtseize, a Clique, a Command, and a Faerie Conclave, replacing the Swamp with an Island to make the mana work out) could have resolved this problem, but I didn’t have enough time to work out a sideboard in light of these changes, and I chose to go with what worked.

In short, it was grueling. Adrian and I talked extensively about deck selection after this tournament, and we both agreed with what we thought initially, which was that for every given tournament you need to select the deck that gives you the greatest chance of winning the tournament. It’s not a matter of personal preference, or of doing something cute; it’s a matter of percentages and edges. The difference was that we both realized that how much you enjoy a deck frequently can directly impact your likelihood of winning with it. If I’m hating every minute that I’m sitting down at the table battling for the championship, it’s exceedingly unlikely that I’m going to maximize all my advantages and look for every possible window to get an edge. Never again will I play a deck that I don’t enjoy in a major tournament.

The other factor, of course, was heart. I conceded twice in the tournament, once to Luis Scott-Vargas and once to Paul Cheon, and rationalized myself into the decision both times. Intellectually and technically, of course, I can still argue that it was correct, and that’s exactly what I did at the time. Independent (naturally) of my thinking that both Luis and Paul are incredibly good men – and just so happen to be the brightest spots on the American Magical landscapes – there was just higher net total value if I gave them the win. For me, a Pro Point (and hence a victory) was nothing since I couldn’t play for the remainder of the season, whereas for them it represented a very tangible gain. But with that seventh-round concession, sitting at 4-2, went my drive to win the tournament. Sure, I could still make it, and sure, I could still win plenty of games on the second day in theory. But I realized the second you admit that you’re not there to win each and every match you can, the second you divest yourself from the outcome of every single game, the second you take some action that prevents you from doing your absolute best, you admit in essence that you’re okay with losing. That you’re just grinding it out for money and points. That the moral and metaphysical value of a victory means nothing.

I was chatting with Frank Karsten in between rounds as part of a group that I think included most of the Belgian squad. I was trying to rationalize and explain away the decision when Frank interrupted me with an almost exasperated tone in his voice. “You’re heart’s not in it anymore,” he said, very perceptively, and instantly I saw that he recognized what I could not.

My competitive fire had been extinguished. The desire to win had been supplanted by something else, the desire to participate in a community, the desire to be at the Pro Tour and enjoy everything, but not the desire to be a champion. I realized, for whatever reason, that he was right.

I spent most of the flight back wondering why that was true, if it really was. Inside I feel like I don’t have anything to prove, even though I’ve never made the Top 8 of a Pro Tour and have never won a major event. Of course, maybe I do. But there’s no one I face that I’m afraid of, no event where I feel my testing group is incompetent or underprepared, no group of peers inside of which I feel out of place – especially given the comparatively small amount of Magic I actually play.

What I began to understand is that my reasons for playing have changed. It’s become less about me and more about community – being a part of something, meeting people, participating in their successes. I care not about how I do at an event – less so, anyway – than how America performs on the world stage, whether we can stay on top (and thanks, Gindy, the victory helps!). I love seeing old-school players like Finkel and Zvi and Chapin – and Adrian, with his Orcish Librarians, and heck, even Gindy – prove that they’ve still got it. I love the tuning and designing process, knowing either in larger or smaller ways that I had something to do with Marijn’s list, and Stuart’s, and Stan’s, and Adrian’s – and, by the same token, when I see Grgur smash through a Magus of the Moon with a flurry of Loxodon Warhammer tokens, that he may have been correct all along. I love to watch people like Steve or Scheel, who still have that fire inside them, rise to the top through the sheer force of their well-fought labor.

There was a time – it seems long ago, now – early on in high school, around 2000 or so, where I really felt I deserved a place at the top. I worked and worked, played and played, and my first Pro Tour in New Orleans felt like I had gone to Disneyland. Soon, of course, the enchantment faded, and a three-year drought of zero Pro Tours (despite probably over fifty PTQ Top 8s and two not-to-be qualifications) muted the fantasy of the entire situation. Still, I felt like I was very good, and by the time Prague rolled around and I was routinely qualifying for PTs in earnest, I wanted wanted WANTED that big finish. I realize now, of course, that I’m not – and never will be – an abject master, and I derive much more pleasure from my writing and the occasional solid performance than I would machine-like round-the-clock gameplay. I’ve a few unaccomplished tasks – a PT Top 8, a national team appearance, and of course everyone dreams of the Invitational – but given how much “real life” has swallowed me (for the better, I’d say) I can ask for nothing more.

Still, recognition of what is doesn’t supplant the nostalgia for what has been, and the angst over what could have come ahead. I titled this article, “An Ode to the Pro Tour,” but in lieu of a formal Ode, at the very least I could propose a toast:

To the time-worn smell of a freshly-opened booster…

To the twenty-hour flights we swear we’ll never do again, only to step right back on two months later and pray for six players to draft…

To strategy-article forum wars, the “yeah that’s right”s and “damn that’s wrong”s, the homeboy coalitions and he-said she-said catfights, and every once in awhile, a genuine, good-hearted pat on the back…

To those ticking seconds in darkening event halls, when it’s half past midnight and the TO’s already “kicked you out” once and twice again, but the Red Zone’s packed and your team’s huddled around and the Champ’s buying drinks halfway across town and you slap high-fived him earlier, but now it’s not the forty-grand check, it’s a twenty and a draft set and the Fire-lit Thicket you opened and desperately need for that Block deck you wanted to try back home, and the guys in WoTC shirts are getting closer, serious now to get you out, finally, and you’re drawing to a two-outer as your boys lean in and BAM YOU HIT IT, RINGADING, RINGADING DING! and the crowd would go wild if they were there and it’s shaking heads from the other side with snide How Luckys in the background but you got it, this time you got it, and whatever they’re saying that’s all you need for now…

To the stories, the sadness, the hits, the misses, the topdecks, the tradeoffs, the players, the fans, the dollars spent, the dollars earned, the heartbreaks, the victory laps, the legacies, the designers, the developers, and the moments that seemed to last forever…

To the love of the game that made it all possible…

Let us remember, lest we ever forget.

Next week, I’ve an analysis of this (and other) Standard-format Top 8s that should be pretty revealing in terms of what to play if you want to win Pro Tours, and some of the gambits you bring to the table when you choose to play a particular archetype. Also, I’ve been contemplating a Faeries primer based on Stan’s and my list from Hollywood, if there’s any interest.

Until next week,


Bonus Section:

In the vein of good ol’ ffeJ tournament reports, the infamous May Or May Not section:

Stuart Wright may or may not have uttered the phrase, “Blimey, guv’nor!” at one point over the weekend

Patrick Chapin may or may not have attempted to coerce Tom LaPille into joining “the family,” to the tone of a standard Mafia “protection-money” hustle, on the PT: Hollywood main event floor

– The same Mr. Chapin may or may not have been asked by a certain Sheldon Menery to leave the premises on multiple occasions for attempting to awe onlookers with his mastery of the arts of break and liquid – strawberry daiquiri in hand the entire time

– Cole Swannack may or may not have evolved from Small Child into basketball phenom.

– Yours truly may or may not have the pleasure of guest-spotting in an excellent Magic-related reality television series roundabouts the time of U.S. Nationals and roundabouts the area of Detroit, MI.

Marijn Lybaert may or may not have corrected my introduction of him as Marvin the Bear by uttering the phrase, “No, it’s Martin the Bear. Eediot.”

– A certain 73-year-old Italian taxi-driver whose voice sounded like the noise Zerg buildings make when they die in Starcraft may or may not have personally requested that Frank Karsten bring him “some of those hot blonde Dutch girls on bicycles” next time he arrived in the ‘States

– Grgur Petric Maretic may or may not have agreed that all Italian men share a certain trait in common, which he will gladly tell you if you ask him

– Timothy James Aten may or may not have definitely arrived at the proper pronunciation of the Magic: The Gathering card “Pili-Pala” (here’s a hint: it contains no “l”s)

Jacob Van Lunen may or may not be totally, completely, irrevocably, and altogether very lovably completely friggin’ insane.

To Stuart, Marijn, Stan, Jan, DJ Fried “Afroman” Meulders, Grgur, Frank, Oots, Manuel, PV, and all the other guys I probably won’t see for a long, long time:

Thank you. So much.

To the Americans, whom I will see at least once at Nationals before Malaysia calls:

The fire hasn’t died. Yet.