Dipping Into The Mailbag

SCGLive broadcaster Patrick Sullivan answers your questions this week, talking about game design, meeting Cedric, how he became a red mage, and more.


I had some reservations about doing a mailbag column, mainly that I never want to consider myself someone compelling enough to think that people would be interested in such a thing. But then I realized that this is my favorite type of column from many writers that I enjoy, that it wouldn’t have to be riddled with pretense to be informative or revealing, and that Cedric Phillips likes this sort of column, so here we are. I solicited questions on Twitter and received lots of compelling ones. Thanks to everyone who participated. If you don’t find your question in here, it’s because either it overlapped in principle with a question I’m answering (more likely) or it just wasn’t very good (less likely, but certainly in play). Just kidding about that last part (mostly).

It’s influenced it in too many ways to count. I think it’s had the biggest impact on me as a deckbuilder. When you’re building competitive decks, it’s very easy to lump cards together as being “good” or “not good,” and I was very dismissive of cards and concepts even when I was a (relatively) successful competitive player back in the day. I think this attitude sets back a lot of players—I don’t know if it’s an instinct to rain on the parades of people who are trying out new stuff, a desire to sound like the smartest person in the room, or that it’s the safest to err on the side of dismissal, but people are loathe to try out new ideas for whatever reason.

When you’re working on designing and developing the file, you can’t just play with the cards you think are powerful; you have to play with everything. Because of this, the perspective changes from “is this good?” to “what are the circumstances required for this to be good?” If you’re the person assigned to build the Hythonia the Cruel Gorgon tribal deck, the only thing you can do is try to build the best (or coolest, or most flavorful, or whatever the objectives are) version possible. I think that shift in mindset has really changed the way I approach deckbuilding and metagame analysis, and it’s a more valuable mindset in other endeavors in life as well.

Working in game design takes some sting out of losses too. For one, I’ve got a lot of fulfilling stuff going on in my life, work included, so my happiness is less predicated on the outcome of a match of Magic. I can also appreciate that variance is an incredibly important part of lots of great games and some percentage of matches of Magic are going to be outside of your control. Because of this, it’s not worth bemoaning your mulligan to five; instead, you should devote your attention to the games you could have won with different plays or deckbuilding choices. To paraphrase my dear friend Patrick Chapin, “focus on what is useful.”

I still get The Fire from time to time and can be disappointed or angered when a match doesn’t go my way, but working in game design has given me a much wider view on what’s going on. I think it’s helped my perspective tremendously.

I’m not sure the exact moment, as I bet our paths crossed at random tournaments over the years, but my first real memory of Cedric is Grand Prix Columbus 2004. He was playing one of my very good friends and teammate Craig Krempels in the Top 4. At this point in the history of Team TOGIT, we assumed anyone we didn’t know couldn’t be good, and I had no reason to believe this enthusiastic kid with the gold wrestling medal around his neck was any different. Craig beat him soundly, but I remember liking Cedric’s good spirits and spunk for lack of a better word.

Since we were grinding PTQs and GPs around the same time and because we shared some of the same close Magic friends (Tim Aten especially), we became friends in the way that many Magic players do, sharing stories in between rounds about the beats we took, eating late night dinners at the TGI Fridays or Applebee’s in whatever suburban dump we just battled at, and all the rest. The fact that Cedric and I share a lot of the same passions outside of Magic (the NBA and professional wrestling most notably) gave us a lot to talk about on top of that. We view the world in very different ways in lots of respects, and his music is often intolerable and by some margin the worst part about travelling with him. But I consider him a very close friend, and it’s incredible to me where the two of us are at.

As far as the commentary is concerned, I was very passionate about public speaking and politics as a kid. I was very active in Model Congress, Model UN, and Mock Trial; was the President of the Junior Statesmen of America chapter of my high school (surviving a real impeachment trial for reasons I’d rather not get into); and was a Diplomacy and International Relations major during my very brief college tenure. I always assumed I was going to be involved in law or politics, but that just didn’t work out.

I’ve also always enjoyed watching friends play Magic more than I’ve enjoyed playing myself (current R&D member Sam Stoddard gave me an honorary “American Railbird Association” badge to commemorate my constant birding). Commentary provides a very natural synergy between my love of Magic and my love of sounding smarter than I actually am.

If I had to sum it up in a sentence, it would be “you aren’t nearly as good as you think you are.” Magic is a very hard game, but there are also lots of moments of very obvious variance. It’s very easy to focus on the second thing, and once that becomes your mentality there’s almost no hope of improving.

If you get the chance to overhear conversations among the best players in the game in between rounds of a Grand Prix, they are usually discussing what they could have done differently, the mistakes they think they made, or opportunities to bluff that they missed and much less about how unlucky they think they got. When you lose, don’t focus on how unlucky you got. If it’s true, there’s no point in focusing on it, as it was outside of your control and it’s taking your attention away from the errors you made in the match (which were probably numerous).

Actually fairly late all told. Once I had a rudimentary understanding of what was good and accumulated enough of the Power Nine, I built a verison of Brian Weissman’s “The Deck,” Magic’s first iconic control strategy. My good friend and schoolmate Eugene Harvey also built his own version (his with the classic Serra Angel + Moat combo, mine with Deadly Insect + The Abyss), and we spent many summer days Mana Draining and Disrupting Sceptering each other in between games of basketball and trips to the corner store for chips and soda around the time Weatherlight came out. We were about fifteen years old, and I can safely say that these were among the happiest days of my life.

The first deck I had any degree of success with on the local level was “Magpile,” a Saga-Masques Standard deck that was essentially just Thieving Magpie, Masticore, lands, and counterspells. It was only during the Sideboard Team Challenge in Columbus, Ohio in 2000 that I was pressed into service to play the red deck, as our team lacked any other Extended deck and no one else wanted to go near it. It was after a day of sawing through Spike Feeder, Illusions of Grandeur, and Sanctimony that I was turned on to the Mountain. I still had my dalliances with other colors (including a PTQ win with Psychatog around 2002), but my heart would always stay red.

My biggest moment came in 1995 or 1996 when I went to Edison, New Jersey to play in the Grey Matter Type I (now Vintage) tournament. This was my first time travelling outside of my hometown to play Magic, and I was very nervous. The crowd was much older and confident, and all of them had lots of Moxes and such. I was an impoverished eighth or ninth grader playing a typical R/G beatdown deck with Kird Ape, Elvish Archer, Bloodlust, Giant Growth, and such. The most powerful card in my deck was Stormbind (as the average card was much worse than Shock back in the day), and I’m pretty sure I didn’t have all four copies of Taiga even though they were about $5 at the time.

I went around the room to watch people play pickup games to get a sense of what was going on. Nearly everyone I saw had four copies of Juggernaut in their deck. Why this was the case when nearly every competitive deck started with Swords to Plowshares, Lightning Bolt, Disenchant, and Mana Drain, I’ll never know, but you have to believe me that this was the case at the time. Looking for another answer to Juggernaut to go along with Lightning Bolt, I thought of Folk of An-Havva and quickly added four to my deck before pairings went up.

In the first round, I played against a generic good stuff deck, which of course had four copies of Juggernaut. He played one early in the game off of some Moxes, and I had the Folk, which he had to read. He looked at his hand, shrugged his shoulders, and attacked, and I quickly blocked and traded. I went on to win the match, and I remember the feeling of “wow, I am good at this” (even though that’s an absurd reaction to this set of circumstances). The tournament was single elimination, and I didn’t get to play a second land in the next match as I was destroyed in a sea of Sinkhole, Stone Rain, and Nether Void. But nothing could erase the feeling of getting that guy’s Juggernaut.

All of my regrets have to do with things outside of the game. I wish I did more sightseeing and experiencing of local culture when I got the opportunity to travel to other countries. I wish I had worked harder with my teammates at TOGIT rather than expecting them to do all the work. And there’s a lot of people I wish I was nicer to back when I was coming up and people were excited to meet me or play against me. The lesson here is that you’ll rarely regret all the times you worked hard or were nice to people but you’ll often regret the reverse.

Back when Caw-Blade with Timely Reinforcements was all the rage (an especially heinous matchup for red), I sideboarded Immolating Souleater with the intent of pumping a lot on the third turn (using Phyrexian mana to make my life total lower than my opponent’s) to take the sting out of Timely Reinforcements. This plan proved terrible in practice, though I still contemplate Immolating Souleater in formats where Timely Reinforcements gets played.

After missing a Top 25 finish at Pro Tour Dragon’s Maze on tiebreakers, I made a brief run at trying to qualify for Pro Tour Theros. I had the fever big time after a string of reasonable finishes (the PT alongside a Grand Prix Top 4 and 16) and really wanted to go to Dublin, which is a place I went to when I was sixteen to visit family and tour the countryside. I booked flights to numerous GPs, failing to make day 2 at any of them except Las Vegas. I was also 7-0 in a Magic Online PTQ that crashed. Combined with some retrospective heartbreak (punting my win-and-in round at GP Portland that would have locked up several invites, a 9-1/1-4 finish at Denver when a Top 32 would have given me a Silver invite to Dublin), I felt it was time to put down the cards for a while.

I love Magic, and I love competitive Magic. At some point in my life, I feel like I’ll rededicate my energy to trying to make it a larger part. But I honestly feel that my ceiling is probably “Silver or low-level Gold,” and juggling my various professional demands alongside playing lots of Magic just isn’t a realistic option for me given how reaching Platinum is a pipe dream for someone of my ability level. And I’m really enjoying the commentary, and quite frankly I’ve always been a lot better at talking about Magic than playing it myself. For now my home is the booth, but I could see that changing somewhere down the line.