From Saturday night sleepovers with two hundred-card decks to Pro Tour Champion, my career has gone through a plethora of changes. Once the decision was made to play competitively, success had followed. It went from the recognition on the PTQ scene to worldwide recognition on the PT after the Top 8 finishes started coming. It felt good, but could it last forever?
After experiencing so much success, Magic slowly became a grind. Too much gaming had burned me out, and the crash landing from my meteoric rise was inevitable. Playtesting stopped being fun, I wasn’t able to break formats anymore, and that was frustrating. How insane is it to become unhappy with yourself for not breaking every tournament?! This was the expectation that my success had earned me. Nothing was ever good enough, and not winning made me look at every tournament as a failure. When the top finishes stopped, my motivation to playtest vanished, resulting in more poor finishes. It was a vicious cycle.
Pro Tour Hollywood
This format was taxing to playtest, because Bitterblossom was just so powerful. Every deck you tried had to pass the Faeries test, which really sapped the fun out of brewing. Bitterblossom sparked the beginning of the end for me. This was the tournament where Magic turned into more of a job and became work.
This was also the first tournament where I met Dan Burdick in real life. He is super old-school and gamed in some of the first Pro Tours. His claim to fame was inventing Necro-Donate. Despite his hipster exterior and refusal to eat meat, he is a great guy. Once, we got into an argument and he yelled at me, “Just because you are smarter and can argue better doesn’t mean that you are right. You know you are wrong, but just argue to be right and it’s pretty shitty.” That stuck with me and caused me to rethink how I treated people. I realized I had damaged my relationships because I always had to be right. This was a big step for me, realizing it’s okay to be wrong. I don’t think Dan ever knew how much impact that conversation had and how much it caused me to grow as a person.
There was one noteworthy story from this event that can only be retold in video.
Grand Prix Indianapolis
During the byes, Dan Burdick and I were playing some fun games. After being mana screwed for a while, I passed with seven cards in hand and five mana open. The following exchange took place.
Dan: Why didn’t you play anything?
Me: I have my reasons.
Dan: Should I attack you with this 3/2?
Me: No, of course you shouldn’t. I passed with five mana open— obviously, I have something.
Dan: I’ll attack.
Me: (untapping his creature for him) No Dan! You don’t want to attack me. Don’t attack.
Dan: Stop it, I am attacking.
Me: Okay, play Glamer Spinners, block.
Dan: Why did I attack?!
The very next turn I attack with my Glamer Spinners and say “Go,” five mana open once again.
Dan: Surely you can’t have another one. I should attack with this 2/2.
Me: Obviously I have another one. Of course you shouldn’t attack
Dan: I can’t tell if you are shenaniganing me or if you have it.
Me: Obviously I have it, Dan. I passed with seven cards in hand again.
Dan: It’s an uncommon, you can’t have two of them. I’ll attack.
Me: Glamer Spinners, block (while cackling in his face).
Dan: (dejected) I’m done.
Me: Yeah, you were done. Done playing well!
That exchange is a microcosm for my relationship with Dan. I would always look for ways to torment him and he would always be guessing if I was serious or not.
US Nationals in Chicago
This was the tournament where the ill-fated MTG Real World took place. Chapin and Dan Burdick had the idea that, with minimal funding, we could make a reality TV show based around the lives of Magic pros. It quickly became apparent that we didn’t have enough equipment or crew to film a TV show. As a result, all of our comedic gems were missed by the cameras, and what we did film was often staged. After looking over the footage, Eric Atwood, the cameraman/producer, commented that if someone had filmed us filming it would have made for a great reality TV spoof. However, this did spawn the Magic documentary “I Came To Game,” so there was definitely a positive from it.
I ended up making the Top 8 of this tournament, and to celebrate convinced Dan Burdick to go out for drinks with some friends. We ended up back at the hotel with this really drunk girl that I knew previously. She was too drunk to remember where her friends lived and they weren’t answering their phones, so we invited her to crash in our hotel room. She was being belligerent and arguing that she had to go home— with Top 8 play looming in four hours, I just walked away and went to the room. Dan Burdick, being the kind soul that he is, convinced her to sleep in our room because she would probably end up being the victim of a crime if she wandered the streets of Chicago at 4 a.m. We ended up passing out in the same bed and nothing happened— that is, until I awoke to a cold, wet sensation.
This wouldn’t be the first time I had pissed the bed while drunk, but I’d been relatively sober last night and I knew it couldn’t have been me. Upon inspection, the front of my boxers was dry and only the side lying against the bed was wet. Then, it dawned on me— she wet the bed. Half asleep, I groggily got up to look for my suitcase and then realized it was locked in Chapin’s car, and he was sleeping in another room. With no other choice, I went to the bathroom, rinsed out my boxers in the sink, and put them back on before wrapping a towel around myself. Then I found a spare blanket and cocooned myself in it, going back to sleep on the very edge of the bed.
The next morning, as I lay in bed with my eyes closed enjoying the benefits of the snooze button, there was a rustling beside me. She had gotten up, realized what she did, and slinked out of the room. As I got up to get into the shower, there were two options: warn the room about the piss-filled bed so no one mised it upon realizing it was open, or let some poor, hapless soul share in my fate. Option two presented some problems, though. In my mind, these were the possible results if someone mised the bed.
1. If Travis slept in the bed, he would probably just take his beats and get back at me. He’s good-natured, but vindictive when pranked. This was manageable.
2. If Eric slept in the bed, I would just feel bad because he is an all-around nice guy and doesn’t deserve that.
3. If Lan slept in the bed, he would cast his Asian rage upon me for dishonoring his family. This was the scariest.
4. If Dan Burdick slept in the bed, he would reap what he had sown and get just what he deserves for convincing the girl to stay the night.
Since Dan was the only one on the floor, the choice was clear— roll the dice, and hopefully the beats fall where they belong.
It turns out that while I was in the shower, Lan yelled to Dan that there was an open bed and told him to take it. Dan gleefully jumped into the bed and noticed that it was still wet. Then he saw the towel that I wrapped myself in last night, immediately assuming that someone had taken a shower and left a wet towel on the bed, and that this was the reason for the wetness. After a little bit, he started to notice the smell. He got on his hands and knees, put his face an inch away from the bed, and took a huge whiff.
That’s when he realized it wasn’t dirty towel water that got the bed wet— it was human piss. Mission accomplished, and thanks for the unknowing assist, Lan!
Worlds in Memphis
Jamie Parke, Nassif, and I brewed together for this Pro Tour and took in all the orphans. Anyone who needed someone to test with that we had any sort of friendship with was on the list. We played a sub-par version of Five-Color Control in Standard but had a solid mono-blue Wizards/Faeries deck. The best part of this tournament was convincing Jamie to go out boozing before Day 2. At the end of the night, as the bar was closing, Dan Burdick bought us some “strictly minus EV JÃ¤gerbombs.” Jamie ended up racking up a 6-0 while I racked up an 0-6 on Day 2, so it seems like JÃ¤gerbombs are to Jamie like spinach is to Popeye. I ended up having to play out Day 3 to get an extra Pro Point in order to hit 15 for the year and earn a free invite for next season. This became referred to as “the PTQ from Hell.”
Grand Prix Los Angeles
At this tournament, there was a very unique situation. Upon finishing in the Top 8, I realized that the Top 8 decks would be in the online coverage but not made available to the Top 8 competitors. Because I owned a Blackberry that had internet access, the decklists would be easily available. However, that wasn’t fair. I brought this up to the head judge and he said it wasn’t DCI policy to release decklists, so we wouldn’t have them. I told him that I could get access to them and he said it didn’t matter: policy is policy. This didn’t sit well with me, so I started to raise a stink. Michael Jacob spoke up as well, and we argued over how unfair it was for the Top 8 competitors without internet access— the same information should be available to all. After a good five minutes of arguing, the head judge finally conceded.
This was a proud moment for me, because there was a chance to do the right thing or do the wrong thing with no fear of getting caught plus a direct benefit for me, and I did what was right.
I playtested a ton for this tournament, and my mono-blue Faeries list was very solid. It felt good to have my efforts rewarded with a strong finish again. It had been too long, and the fire was temporarily back. Magic was fun again, and with Ancestral Visions rotating out, Standard was open to non-Faeries strategies. It felt possible to brew again and come up with new strategies. For a while, it felt like you would be forced into playing decks that built themselves. Elves and Faeries had almost no room for innovation— sure, you could tweak the last few cards, but the first thirty spells in the decks were always the same. Faeries becoming weaker opened new doors and that in turn rekindled the fire inside me.
Pro Tour Kyoto
We had a Five-Color Control deck that wasn’t convincingly beating Faeries or B/W Tokens. The matchup was just too close, so Jamie Parke and I brewed up a Blightning beatdown deck. The highlight of playtesting was that every time someone cast Boggart Ram-Gang, it was preceded by a couple knocks on the table— to which the opponent had to reply, “Can I help you?” Then you came back with, “Uh, I am here for the Ram-Gang.” Then you bashed in for three. We tried to come up with nicknames for every card in the deck, but fell a little short.
I cashed in this tournament and was happy with the performance of the Blightning beatdown deck. It felt good to put in work on a format again and come up with something competitive. Still, a Top 64 was a far cry from a Top 8, and I desperately needed a premier finish. My expectations were still incredibly high.
At this tournament, we discovered the “combo” meal. It consisted of sushi and then walking across the street and slamming a Big Mac from McDonald’s. Before dinner, I decided to eat some Pringles by putting the whole chip in my mouth. Gabe was going nuts because I was sitting on his bed, and he thought that crumbs were going everywhere. After displaying my chip-eating method, he was still unsatisfied— after my refusal to move, he started to yell.
So, after we got back from picking up dinner, I sat on his bed with the other half of my combo meal: the Big Mac. I proceeded to eat it like a ravenous animal. My head jerked back and forth as I tore off hunks of burger, and crumbs were flying everywhere. Gabe looked on, half in disbelief and half in amusement. This is what he got for questioning my chip-eating! Jamie asked him why he didn’t do anything to stop it. “He is just some sort of maniac who always reraises you,” Gabe replied. “If I do something to him, he will just come back five-times worse!”
Walking to the convenience store to pick up some beers, the following exchange took place.
Me: So, want to split something big this time, so if the other is doing well we will have a real sweat?
Gabe: Uh, sure, I guess.
Me: How about 25%?
Gabe: How about twenty?
Me: How about 25%?
Gabe: How about twenty?
Me: How about 25%?
Gabe: Okay, fine.
He ended up winning the PT and shipped millions. The best part is now he’s hooked in for life splitting with me, just trying to chase his losses.
Grand Prix Chicago
I convinced Paul Rietzl and Jamie Parke to attend this tournament so we could have a “miser’s weekend.” There were some girls in Chicago that were down to go out boozing and show us around, so a proper group was needed. Phil Atkin had just gotten fired from his job so I offered to bankroll his portion of the trip to get his mind off of things, and we were on the road. He had no intention of playing in the GP, but he couldn’t say no to the good times.
Upon showing up for the event, Pam, the owner of RIW Hobbies, shipped Paul, Jamie, and I cards for our decks. However, they were all about four to ten cards short. Because some of the cards were sold out, all of us made a pact that no matter what, we were going out boozing tonight. After every round that we won, it was like a bad beat because that meant the boozing had to wait. We knew that our decks were bad and just wanted the misery to end. It was not to be— everyone made Day 2. Paul backed out of the pact so Jamie, Phil, and I went out boozing.
Before the start of Day 2, still assuming we would all lose, we decided to begin our morning with a cup of Glenlivet. We ran out of cups, so Paul was forced to drink it from the coffee pot. From then on, having a glass of Glenlivet was known as either, “having a cup of joe” or “Glenlivin’ it up.” Paul ended up chugging the remnants of the bottle and was pretty drunk for Round 1. Apparently, he just needed some winning juice, because he ended up making the Top 8.
As all of this was going on, Phil was in the hotel room playing MODO in his boxers. Anyone who came up was subject to a drunken lecture on how to draft triple Conflux. At one point, Lan D. Ho came up to borrow his car keys and just saw Phil sitting there in his boxers, with all the lights off in the room, huddled over a computer and doubled-up on MODO.
Oh yeah, Nassif won the GP— and he shipped 25% again, trying to chase his losses. Hooked ‘im right on in, boys!
Grand Prix Seattle/Pro Tour Honolulu
The idea was to go straight from the GP to Hawaii so we could stay in a beach house. We ended up renting a baller beach house that was owned by Elizabeth Taylor’s family. The tenants were David Williams, Noah Boeken, Chris Rossiter, Dan Burdick, Jamie Parke, Paul Rietzl, Ben Rubin, Brian Kibler, and Jelger Wiegersma. Sounds pretty sick, right? Now all that was needed was to make it from Seattle to Honolulu— harder than it sounds.
You see, the last night we were in town we bought about seventy-two beers. Then, everyone started going to sleep. So now, flush with extra brews, we tried to come up with a plan to kill all of these. First, we made a trail of full beers from the elevator to our hotel room— the assumption being that whoever followed it would be so cool we would want them to drink with us. An hour later, when we went out to check up on them, they were all gone. Then the Doctor— Chris Lachmann— and I just tried to iron man through all of them. The Doctor rigged some Three-card Monte, which resulted in me frog-splashing Jamie, who was in a dead sleep, and wrestling with him. I passed out shortly thereafter.
The next morning was all a blur. Jamie tried to wake me up but was unsuccessful. He had to pour a full bucket of ice all over me while Chapin packed up all of my things because I was so out of commission. Then I went to the bathroom for like fifteen minutes with Jamie pounding on the door, because we were about to miss our flight. When I came out, he had to wave out my jeans and help me in them one leg at a time because I was too dazed to do it myself. All of this morning had to be told to me later, because I didn’t “wake up” from my blackout until we were sitting at the Burger King in the airport.
The PT was full of good times. I knew this girl who lived in Honolulu, so I got in touch with her. She came over to hang out and we all went to dinner at one of the nicer restaurants in Honolulu. I ended up losing the credit card game for about $800. Then when we got back to the house we started boozing, and Jamie wingmanned it with her friend. It was all for naught though, because as soon as my girl got into bed with me she said she was kind of seeing someone and couldn’t do anything.
A good start to the trip.
The next night, we went out to the best steakhouse in town. Noah spilled a glass of red wine all over my favorite white polo shirt and again my card came up to pay in the credit card game. This time, it was for $1k. The third night out to dinner at the nicest seafood place in town, Jamie and I were too hung over to finish our meals. That didn’t prevent me from paying again, this time for $900. That put me past the max-pain threshold and I just had this vacant look on my face for the rest of the night. It ended up being a mise though, because the girl decided to hook up with me as a consolation for all of my bad beats— well worth it.
All of my drafts had been pretty awkward, and whenever Dan Burdick saw my deck he started singing, “My my my mediocre mana base,” to the tune of Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face.” We also invented a game where one person got to first pick a song, then the other got two songs and you bet on which played over the radio first. “Birthday Sex” by Jeremiah was a huge favorite and was always first-picked. Paul came in on Thursday night, and after a long night of drinks decided to go swimming in the coral-infested ocean behind our house. His hands and feet were shredded by a series of cuts, and at one point during Day 1 his opponent politely asked him to stop bleeding on his cards as he was shuffling.
Even though I failed to defend my title and lost approximately one-third of my net worth on credit card games during this trip, it was still one of the best PT experiences of my life.
The success wasn’t there anymore, but this tournament showed me it was possible to have fun without it. The people involved were just so great that seeing them for a couple weeks turned any tournament into a good time, regardless of finish. That said, I still had unreasonable expectations for myself at these tournaments given my lack of preparation, and whenever the poor finishes came, so did the depression.
This tournament may have been the first time that a poor finish didn’t cause depression, but it wasn’t until just recently that I could go to any tournament, finish poorly, and just be happy to have had the experience and see my friends. There were still some lows to come before my Zen was established.
Pro Tour Austin
In my second-to-last round, I lost to a savage misplay. I hadn’t really tested Limited for this format and attacked a Grazing Gladehart into a Kor Sanctifiers and didn’t pump with Vines of the Vastwood because I thought the Sanctifiers was a 2/2 and not a 2/3. I lost the match as a result and was physically sick afterwards. It was all I could do to not vomit. Never before could I remember making such a horrendous mistake to lose a Pro Tour match. For a while, the drive had left me, and as a result my playtesting lessened significantly— but this was too much to bear.
I considered just quitting for good, because the depression was so unbearable. It’s hard to know you are capable of playing at a certain level and not be able to do so. It didn’t matter that I didn’t practice and didn’t know the cards, all that mattered is that I made that mistake. Lan D. Ho was watching the match and could tell how upset I was. He said that when I let my guy die, he assumed I knew something he didn’t because whenever he watched me play, it seemed like I always had a plan.
That basically hammered in the realization that my game just wasn’t as strong as it used to be.
It was a sad moment.
Worlds in Rome
This was a really, really hard time for me. I had been running bad at poker, and the realization that a Magic tournament was becoming an investment hit me hard. It simply wasn’t economically feasible to go to this tournament. That had consequences, however.
Not going to this tournament meant not getting to fifteen Pro Points, which meant not being on the Pro Tour anymore. Not being on the Pro Tour meant not being able to see the people I had come to love so much over the years. On top of all of that was the realization that maybe I just wasn’t good enough to win anymore. One day, this all just dawned on me and I basically came to terms with the end of my career and sat in my room and cried. The feeling of loss was overwhelming— this was the moment when it was all ending.
Thankfully a bunch of friends chipped in on my ticket/hotel/travel expenses. Johan Sadeghpour, David Williams, Gabriel Nassif, Paul Rietzl, and Ben Rubin— God, I hope I didn’t forget anyone— all helped out to get me to the tournament, and even writing this I am choking up over how much that meant to me. I was just so broke and they all basically said, “Here dude, here’s some cash, we want you to be here.” The sheer depth of friendship displayed by their generosity was and is unbelievable.
The plan for the tournament was to meet at Nassif’s place in Paris with Ben Rubin and Johan Sadeghpour to do some testing before heading to Rome. We didn’t come up with a single good deck, but it was a blast. On the plane ride to Rome, Johan, Ben, and I figured out the tech was to only whisper during every game you played. For some reason this brought endless enjoyment, especially when Nassif wondered why the hell we refused to stop whispering. When we were in the hotel room I loudly announced, “Hey guys, gonna check in at the office and put a brewing session in,” before heading for the toilet. Within a session or two, the bathroom was referred to as “the office” for all intents and purposes.
Playtesting went horribly. I kept trying to get my Esper Control deck to beat Jund, and it just wasn’t happening. The frustration was mounting. Ben Rubin, upon seeing this, would start handing me facedown cards after every loss experienced at his hands. I would just sort of stare at it and he would nod towards me. “Go ahead buddy, take it! It’s for you!” Then I would reveal the card and it would be a Memory Erosion or Cradle of Vitality or some other piece of garbage. I had finally sunk so low that my playtest partners were consoling me when I lost with their crap rares from team drafts. Ben was reveling in it. At one point, when he gave me an especially crappy one, I just looked up and started shaking my head in horror, saying, “Not like zis, Ben. Not like zis.” He just completely lost it and laughed so hard he started crying. Thanks for the pleasant good-bye, buddy.
The tournament itself couldn’t have gone worse. Ben Rubin had this hair-brained idea that for Extended, he would speed up his PT Austin list— the one Kibler won with— to beat the mirror. The only problem with that was that he created the PT Austin deck solely to beat fast Zoo decks. How does speeding up your Zoo deck make you beat a deck that was designed to beat fast Zoo decks? A classic case of going too deep in the tank and never making it out alive.
Sightseeing was great, and obviously the one nice dinner I went out to with David Williams, his girlfriend Yvette, and Nassif, I end up losing the credit card game for a solid +$200.
Pro Tour San Diego
Before this tournament, poker had gotten pretty disheartening. It was impossible to win a hand. One day I was talking to Sam Gomersall and he said there had been some changes with his company’s management and he might be able to get me a job now. Done! Sign me up!
The plan was to go to San Diego for a month and stay with Dan Burdick to get some playtesting in. About a week into this stay I get a phone call saying the job is mine and I am moving to an island in the middle of nowhere. This truly was my last tournament. After doing so much reflecting before Worlds, it was easy to accept it now. Moving on was just what was left for me. The PT resulted in a money finish and was a fine send-off.
The game had left me behind. At some point it went from being fun to being a job. Cards like Bloodbraid Elf and Bitterblossom were just so unfun. Draft decks went from having 22-23 playables to having thirty or more. The stack didn’t exist anymore. The game was getting dumbed down.
You certainly can’t blame Wizards for it. Sales are up and obviously it is great to have a game where the cards can help outweigh the skill discrepancy. There is a reason people choose this game over chess. But for me, it just wasn’t the same. The game changed and left me behind and it was time to take my ball and go home. Either that, or maybe I just wasn’t good enough to hack it anymore and blaming Bloodbraid Elf and Bitterblossom is just easier than accepting that. But hey, those guys got plenty of hate, so they won’t notice a little bit more.
It is also worth noting that my boozing had a significantly negative effect on my career. Once you turn twenty-five, it gets harder and harder to stay out boozing all night and bring your A-game to a Pro Tour the next day after getting three hours of sleep. The choice was give up the sauce at tournaments or slowly fade into oblivion. Unwilling to give up the good times with all of my close friends on the Tour, I just said “Cheers!” and kept knocking them back. Would I change it if I could go back? Hell no. Life is about the stories, and as you can see it took a three-parter just to talk about my Magic-related ones. Maybe I can tell myself that I am a martyr who sacrificed his career for the laughter his stories brought to others? Hey, sure beats the truth of being a washed-up boozehound.
It wasn’t the decks, either. The decks I played were all good. Often times, many others would finish highly with them. The problem was that I just got burned out and had no desire to put in enough practice to become proficient with them. There were a lot of tournaments that were phoned in during the twilight of my career. That is a big regret, but considering how I felt at the time, maybe a break was needed.
All of those factors combined to separate me from the game. Now, I had a job lined up and it was time to move on.
For a while I just gave it up when I got to the island.
Then the phone calls for cube drafts started.
And then Urza’s Saga came out on MODO.
And then Scars came out.
And then Antonino De Rosa qualified for the Pro Tour and asked me to help him brew.
And then I created the Puresteel Paladin deck which broke the format.
And now the fire is back, and “herberheezy” is once again a MODO regular.
I don’t know if I will be able to qualify for the Pro Tour in the near future with my work schedule. I don’t know if I still have enough game to do well even if I do. I do know that Magic will without a doubt forever be a vital part of my life, and now instead of going to tournaments for “work” they take up a big chunk of my vacation time.
P.S. I wanted to give more advice to current players and drop some knowledge, but the length of these stories snuck up on me. I will do my best to get a strategy-based article out soon. Me…strategy? Weird!
P.P.S To everyone who made the Pro Tours great and shared a laugh or beer with me, I love you.