Feature Article – My Travels End, and Grand Prix: Vancouver

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Friday, February 29th – Grand Prix: Vancouver was an interesting event. It was nice to see some PT friends before heading back home, and I had some interesting conversations with all manner of people. On the topic of Ninjas, LSV had the following to say: “It seems like a good Tier 2 deck, if you play it perfectly and your opponent makes mistakes.”

Meet the Players

When I moved to Iowa City at the tender age of 17 to attend the University of Iowa, I was lucky. Iguana’s Comic Book Café, one of the largest Magic retailers in the world during the 90’s, was still going strong in the campus town area of the city (within walking distance from my dorm), and I already had some connections to the Magic world in town. It was through an FNM that I ran into a group of guys, only slightly older than me, who were from Muscatine, Iowa and who liked to play Magic. We hit it off, and over the next four years I spent a lot of time living with them, playing with them, traveling with them to events, and ultimately getting to know many of their former peers from Muscatine.

Three of those individuals made up the group with which I would be traveling to Grand Prix: Vancouver. Matt Francis, the only non-Magic player amongst us, was one of the Muscatiners I met who wasn’t inherently a gamer. We worked for a time as phone jockeys at MCI, just after Enron but before they out-sourced all their call center jobs to India, and we even dated girls who were roommates for a while. That let us get closer than we would have had we simply been guys who knew each other through mutual friends. Now a hospitality services employee, Matt is a handy guy to have on a road trip because he has connections by way of work at hotels around the world. Of course, I was covered in that area (thanks, Wizards!) but the rest of the gang was able to take advantage of some choice rates on some pretty nice hotels.

I was very drunk at the time...
Matt Francis after 2 hours sleep and no coffee…

Chris Crile, who I’ve written of before, is a good human being. He’s respected amongst his peers because of his level-headedness, and because long before Mapquest and Tom Tom (well, more like “a year or two before”), Crile was the driver who knew how to navigate everywhere, and perfectly. In a past life I’m certain he was a migratory bird of some type because once he’s been to a place he knows exactly how to get back forever. We lived together in the “Magic Apartment” we shared with two fellow gamers, then after a few years had gone by moved back in to a joint apartment while he worked on his master’s degree and started as an engineer for Rockwell Collins and I finished up my undergrad and started work as a professional writer-about-Magic. He hounds me incessantly for forgetting him in my Grand Prix: Columbus tournament report in which I thanked a thousand people for loaning me cards but forgot to thank him for lending me Cursed Scrolls (Thanks for lending my Cursed Scrolls, Crile!!!).

The joke, of course, is on him. I still have the Cursed Scrolls.

Cooking bacon with the power of his mind!
Chris Crile after cooking bacon for breakfast

Joining us as the fourth member of our party was Washington host Ben Torgerson. Ben has been a teacher, worked in education systems, and done a million things that make him out to be a responsible adult and someone whom I respect and admire. Still, a strong love of all things Star Wars and a cheeky sense of humor keep him one-of-a-kind, and reminds me that just because I’m headed towards 30 doesn’t mean I have to stop cursing, playing Magic, or wearing Darth Maul boxers. Take these snippets of conversation as example:

Ben, in a moment of mock introspection, “Guys, when I die make sure they cremate me on a huge funeral pyre. Like Darth Vader. Oh, and then make me into a ceramic sword. Or buffet plate. You know. So people can eat out of me.”

Or how about as he was driving Crile and I to the airport to return home?

Me: “Hey Chris, when you get on a plane, do you ever whistle ‘I’m Leaving, on a Jet Plane’?”
Ben, interrupting: “Oh, I do all the time.”
“Well, only if I don’t know when I’ll be back again.”

Torgerson is one of my favorite human beings in the world, and it was he who made me realize that I wasn’t as good at Magic as I thought I was during our time sharing an apartment in college (with Chris Crile and a fourth member, Grant Jackson, who couldn’t make it to Vancouver). It was he amongst our group who first managed to qualify for a Pro Tour, who understood the game’s fundamentals more clearly than the rest of us, but was always too humble to say so. There are a lot of times I wish Ben’s interest in the game wasn’t simply because his friends still kept up with it, but any excuse to see him was worthwhile and I relished the chance to take another road trip with him to yet another Magic event. I was also pretty happy he was willing to host the whole crew at his home in Aberdeen, just under two hours from Seattle.

It's the Final Countdown!
Ben Torgerson himself

There was a final member of the team who traveled with us in spirit. Ben’s dog Louie happens to be the most adorable miniature dachshund in the world, and I truly mean that. The animals naturally have big doleful eyes that ALWAYS seem to say “Hi, what are you doing? Hmmm… wanna pet me instead?” and it’s tough to resist. Adding to Louie’s cuteness was the fact he had a miniature sleeping bag he loved to curl up in. I called it a “snuggle sack,” but I kept mis-pronouncing it until eventually I spent most of my week in Washington referring to the puppy as “Snuggle Snack.” This was easy to do because he loved snuggling and would hop into bed with you at a moment’s notice, only to burrow under the blankets, find a good nook near your legs, and superheat your feet. That was a tradeoff for the fact he also opted to rest his cold, wet nose against you while snuggling, but no matter how far we got from Aberdeen, Washington, Louie was there in spirit.

All [card name=
Most. Adorable. Dog. Ever.

Magic on the go

Magic is a global game, truly. It seems like no matter what trip one makes for the game, inevitably strangers on that trip wind up crossing your path from the game regardless of your final destination. On a tour of Europe with Brandon Scheel two years ago, we came across a train car of German schoolchildren playing; at Pro Tour: San Diego, a cabbie excitedly described playing Magic in his youth after we explained why we were in town, and once it even saved Cheeks from who knows what at customs when a grumpy agent melted into pleasantness upon discovering what exactly it was that Matt had been doing in Japan for a week (“Dude, Magic? Man, I used to have an awesome Sliver deck! You go right on through, I don’t care what drugs you’re bringing into the U.S.”).

Naturally this trip was no different, and during a bathroom break at a Shell Station in Lynnwood, Washington (corner of 200th and 45th) we came across an attendant sorting thousands of cards at the cash register in between customers. It would be fair to say we were a bit caught off guard (seriously, who gets to sort Magic cards while working, game store employees excluded?), but eventually I struck up a mini-conversation with the guy to find out what the story was. It turns out Jericho (real name) had been playing since the game had come out, and that he had recently purchased the cards in front of him from a friend who also worked at the Shell. “So, why did your friend quit?” I asked.

“Dude he didn’t quit, these are his extras.”

What a game.

Beard of Dooooooooooom!!!!
You never know where Magic will strike…

The Grand Prix

Grand Prix: Vancouver was an interesting event. It was nice to see some PT friends before heading back home, and I had some interesting conversations with all manner of people. On the topic of Ninjas, LSV had the following to say:

“It seems like a good Tier 2 deck, if you play it perfectly and your opponent makes mistakes.”

On his play on the weekend, Gadiel Szleifer said:

“I’m rusty. I know I’m rusty.” Naturally he Top 16’ed, though technically that was a downgrade from the last Grand Prix he “was rusty” at (Columbus, in which he Top 8’ed).

On how much the French like President Nicholas Sarkozy Raphael Levy offered up:

“Hey, I like him. He got the girl. He’s got the power. Good job!”

The quotable quotes stretch forever, but it was the weekend’s results that were the most intriguing. Jens Thoren appeared out of nowhere to get his GP on and, I must say, I was disappointed to see him end up in 17th, just out of a slot for California. In the final round he was paired against Top 8’er Hunter Coale who quickly offered a draw to ensure qualifying for Hollywood. Thoren, member of the old guard that he is, came to play, but his Domain deck just didn’t come together during their match. Who knows if he regrets that decision now, but he’s a good face for the game and it’s disappointing to think he may not be in Cali despite voicing an interest in attending.

Another storyline worth following on the weekend was the saga of UG Tron as championed by Ben Lundquist, and through him Zack Hall, both of whom Top 8’ed. It should be pointed out that Ryan Trepanier, another member of the Grand Prix: Columbus Top 8 class, also played the deck, though he was knocked out by Owen Turtenwald and didn’t get to play on Sunday. Had it not been for Tom LaPille, I might not have noticed the storyline until the Top 8, but after joining me in the coverage tent for Sunday’s play he quickly tuned in to the happening.

It’s always nice to see Ben Lundquist being successful; he represents the more quiet and reserved American mentality that has been best represented by the California professionals like the LSV/Cheontourage who have done so well over the past few years. He rarely speaks up publicly unless he has something relevant to say and, as those who know him can attest, the kid can play cards pretty well. It was also kind of cool to watch Zack Hall start to distinguish himself as well; he’s not just someone to mistakenly believe is Zac Hill by name but an actual Magic player in his own right, even if he doesn’t plan trips to foreign lands that well (ask him about Valencia the next time you see him).

And of course, Cheon won. Someday that guy will 8-0 a Pro Tour and wind up playing on Sunday, but you have to respect the skills. Torgerson, who has always loved watching Magic as much as playing it, watched the finals match and said “Who’s that Cheon guy? He can play.” When I pointed out he actually was already a name player, Ben calmly nodded and replied “Makes sense.” The question following the vent is whether or not Previous Level Blue stays good. I’d hesitate to say yes; there are a lot of bad matchups for it in the world, and Paul got some pretty big breaks to make it to the final table on Sunday. I have no idea how he managed to beat a TEPS player during the tournament with cards like Vedalken Shackles and Threads of Disloyalty in his deck, but hey, that’s why the guy is a Level 8 mage. Still, I won’t be sleeving the deck up for battle this weekend, and I’d be pretty surprised to see it start dominating the PTQ scene.

There were some other interesting stories to come out of the event. I was joined on coverage Sunday by Tom LaPille, Raphael Levy, Zaiem Beg, and Riki Hayashi. I’m grateful to each of them for the help they provided me in making sure each match of the Top 8 was able to be covered for posterity. Tom in particular did a surprising amount of work on the day, eschewing opportunities to play side events in an effort to round out his Magic repertoire by getting his hands into some coverage. He was there at 8:30am, well before the players needed to be, to review what I needed from him as a writer, and he piped up with story leads and interesting ideas throughout the day. Tom gets a lot of heat on the forums here for whatever reasons, but I’ll be the first to say it was a pleasure working with someone as professional as he was (and again, big thanks to Tom, Riki, and Zaiem for their help with the Top 8).

Participation for the Grand Prix at around 400 was within the range of what was expected to show, but Canadian Magic players, unlike every other Grand Prix ever save one, surprised tournament organizers by being more with it than they were projected to be. You can often tell how many players are going to be playing a Grand Prix based on the number of pre-registrants to the event who pay to play before the event starts, usually on Grinder Friday. For this event that number was about 200, creating a projection of 600 participants come Saturday, higher than anticipated. It turned out more people were simply responsible enough to sign up for the event in advance, and the original projection wound up being pretty dead on. Kudos to Canada for having it together.

For all you Vintage fans out there, it should be pointed out that there was indeed a Vintage side-event at the GP. My original plan was to post decklists as a favor to the Vintage community (and because Steve Menendian gets upset if you don’t post all information available from Vintage and Legacy events) which I have a great deal of respect for, but unfortunately they didn’t use decklists. Sorry. Still, you could talk to Luis Scot-Vargas who Top 8’ed playing Fastbond Tendrils; it’s possible he can tell you who or what made the final cut.

Finally, after two fourteen hour days during which I was partially jet lagged, waking up at 5 a.m. for no good reason after only the barest amount of sleep, the tournament came to an end. Seamus Campbell did a mighty swell job in his first stint as a head judge during a Grand Prix, and the winners and Top 8 made for plenty of good stories. Matt Francis drove home, getting us back to Aberdeen in record time, presumably by driving some 80 miles per hour most of the way. I was asleep or I probably would have complained until he slowed down, but we arrived safely so no complaints, right?

Should Wizards Ban Something?

Rashad Miller is a Midwestern judge and a unique breed of zebra. Unlike many adjudicators, Rashad is as much a tournament player as he is a rules enforcer, and he seems to spend an equal portion of each PTQ season trying to qualify as well as judge events. I feel this is an important facet of truly good judges, as it’s much easier to determine what a player is thinking when you’ve been in his or her seat before. Web security firms, after all, hire hackers to beat hackers.

I was a bit surprised when Rashad, who was judging Grand Prix: Vancouver, came up to me during a lull in the goings on of the tournament and asked, rather out of the blue, “So Bill, do you think they’re going to ban Bridge from Below on May 1st?”

To be perfectly honest, it wasn’t something that had even crossed my mind. I’ve said before in previous interviews and articles that I’m not the type of player who bemoans the status of reality crying “Woe is Wizards, surely they must ban Flash!” Instead I build decks and compete within the constraints of the tournament environment I’ve been provided with. If that means everyone is going off on turn 2 and making trillions of Sky Hussar tokens, then so be it; I’m happy to Serum Powder a Leyline on their butts and ask them to figure out how to deal with it. Still, after some engaging discussion with Rashad at the site and Kyle Mechler, a fellow Iowan who runs the forums we use to keep in touch with one another, I came to the conclusion that Wizards probably should ban something from Dredge.

Of course, that’s a tricky call. I’m not going to be upset if nothing gets banned, and it would be the first time perhaps in history in which sufficient hate exists to keep a broken deck suppressed in which said deck is actually suppressed throughout the season, but Dredge is powerful enough as to merit losing one of its key elements. How can that be? It did, after all, just have one of the worst success rates at Grand Prix: Vancouver in which a large percentage of the Dredge showed up on Saturday morning but a minuscule fraction of the deck came to play on Sunday. How can a deck that does so poorly at an event merit calls for banning?

The answer is pretty simple: look at why it did so poorly. Dredge warps a format because it forces every player to run a minimum of six, and usually closer to eight, sideboard cards to combat it. Furthermore, decks start to warp their maindecks to combat the strategy as well. A Rock list that might prefer Loxodon Hierarch has to get by with Ravenous Baloth simply because it can counteract Bridge from Below. Mogg Fanatic replaces Savannah Lions in decks like Domain Zoo for the same reason. Sakura-Tribe Elder becomes relevant when Search for Tomorrows might have taken its stead, again because of Bridge from Below. Even if Dredge isn’t winning every single event, or even Top 8ing each event, the reality remains that it is having a significant warping effect on Extended’s maindecks and sideboards. Luis Scot-Vargas and Paul Cheon both struggled with the question of “How popular will Dredge be?” in Vancouver before determining the sideboard and maindeck listings of their Previous Level Blue. Paul, the eventual winner, opted for six sideboard cards, the bare minimum you need to run to actively combat the deck in games 2 and 3.

So what card should be banned? Rashad matter-of-factly asked me about Bridge as though there weren’t other options to consider. Dread Return and Narcomoeba also seemed like potential options for the banhammer, while Golgari Grave-Troll or other dredgers seem like bad options because redundant alternatives exist. In the end, however, I think Rashad is right. Bridge from Below is what pushes the deck over the top and sends it into “broken” territory, allowing for consistent turn 2-4 kills. Older builds with Ichorids that might try to simply reanimate something large and kill you with it seem a lot more fair because they give you plenty of time to interact. Suddenly Withered Wretch, Morningtide, Coffin Purge, and a host of other cards become very useful in combating the deck.

Will Wizards pull the trigger and give us back our sideboards for use during the rest of the Extended season? We’ll find out tomorrow.

My travels come to an end (for now)

What a trip. As the landing gear for my final flight from Chicago to Cedar Rapids deployed to return me home to my beloved Iowa, I couldn’t help going over the rush of events that had unfolded over the past month. I saw five countries (China, Malaysia, Japan, Canada, and…okay, the U.S.), friends from all over the world, and got to experience some pretty unique things. I’m not sure whether seeing a Malaysian zoo with the Belgians; reliving the glory days of college with Ben, Crile, and Matt; or simply playing Magic with any of a host of friends was the best experience, but in any case it all added up to an amazing adventure.

Next week the conversation will inevitably return to discussing Extended, but for now I’ve got things to unpack, responsibilities to catch up on, and a rush of memories to keep playing over and over in my head.

Bill Stark
[email protected]

Paul Cheon and Ben Lundquist at Grand Prix: Vancouver

Leaning to the left
Making bacon, as a Chris Crile should be

Sexy Building Pr0n!
Site of Grand Prix: Vancouver

Misregistered decklist? That's a paddlin'
Seamus Campbell addresses the judges before play begins