Flores Friday – Modeling Grand Prix Excellence

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Friday, March 14th – This weekend, thousands of players will descend upon the Grand Prix halls in Philadelphia and Vienna. Only eight will survive to the final table of each, and of those eight, only one will triumph. What skills, exactly, do you need to make it all the way to the GP top? Mike investigates that today, with input from some of the greats (Dan OMS, Mikey P, Osyp to name but three). If you’re looking to elevate yourself to the next level, here’s the place to start!

Part I. THE END of Fake it ‘til You Make It

There are multiple ways that you can acquire an exemplary ability. One way is to simply pretend you have it, and operate as though you have it with such charisma that at least to the untrained eye, you have it. This is what we call the “fake it ‘til you make it” (which presumes you don’t actually have “it,” though some fakers can have flashes of brilliance at least at times).

Another way is to try to internalize the essence or experience of someone you admire by studying the fruits of their excellence (usually without any genuine expertise or input), especially when you don’t actually have it, or have access to the appropriate paragon. For example, I am reading the 1977 novel Super-Folks, by Robert Mayer (influentially credited precursor to Astro City, Miracleman, and Watchmen), which features bar none the single greatest first page of any novel I have read. One writing book that I read last year suggested that in order to “internalize” the ability that another effective writer might have, that one could literally write out, longhand, his favorite passages. I have literally spent five hours at a time more than once, filling pages of a spiral bound with scribbled copy; it is actually a practice that I wish that I spend more time doing. Following are the best written consecutive paragraphs published in the best book ever by the finest living practitioner of the English language… moving, violent, desperate, and quick:


If I wanted to internalize Mayer’s ability to craft an awesome if not perfect (“Batcar”) first page, I might copy that page, over and over, dozens of times, poring over every word, making it not just a part of my experience as a reader, but my arm:

Words, words

I really like list writing. I think that well crafted lists are the easiest things to appreciate in good prose (… or poems, too, I suppose), and when they are broken up by some clever un-like, you can get a really nice interplay. Also from Super-Folks:

Words, words, words

While this can be a very effective technique for writing (and even better for drawing), it is impractical for the internalization of Magic skill. First of all, you can’t really watch Kai Budde play and then just do whatever you saw him do on camera because the specific situations that come up in specific games are consistently inconsistent… But more importantly, this is a very unnatural practice.

You can’t just tack behavior or some external perception onto yourself and assume that you now have the grace-given superpowers of whoever happens to be your personal hero. If it were just externals and muscle memory, we could learn Tiger Woods’s golf swing!

That said, human experience has structure. If that weren’t true, none of us could ever teach anyone else, well, anything. Innovations over the last decade or so have improved the process of Modeling to reveal something that should actually be obvious to some readers: Trying simply to graft the external onto a person is not natural; however “getting into the head” of an exemplar, understanding what a person who has some admirable ability is thinking about, where he is coming from, what he believes, and what is motivating him – and internalizing that will enable us to allow their abilities to flow from that belief structure naturally.

So how does this work?

What am I talking about and what are we doing?

In honor of the Grand Prix(s) that are occurring, well, tomorrow, I decided that I would interview and Model five players with exceptional Grand Prix finishes (four of whom are Grand Prix or multiple Grand Prix champions) in order to find the commonalities between them.

While it might not be possible to obtain exactly Jon Finkel ability to play blackjack (he was probably even better at blackjack than Magic), we can look to multiple exceptional individuals, see what they have in common, where they are coming from in common, and learn those things… allowing us to maybe make some Grand Prix Top 8s – or claim some crowns – of our own!

Part II. Obtaining Belief

Daniel O’Mahoney-Schwartz

Dan has multiple Grand Prix final tables to his credit, and at least one win as a member of the legendary Antarctica with his brother Steve and Jon Finkel. Most of his top Grand Prix finishes were Limited, but years after a supposed retirement from the New York Magic scene, Dan showed up to Grand Prix: Boston in 2005 (he was living in Boston at the time) to score an Extended Top 8 with U/G Madness. For obvious reasons – the format at hand, and the fact that this was his Constructed finish – I wanted to focus on that one rather than one of the Limited or team events.

What was the most important element that allowed you to make [this] Top 8?

“You mean other than teaming with Jon? Just kidding! In the Extended tournament, it was feeling absolutely no pressure. It was Superbowl weekend and I actually had plans for Sunday! I just showed up with no expectations for results… I didn’t even attend the PT I qualified for, and it was in Philadelphia.”

Define playing under no pressure…

“I have been in the finals of the Masters, other Grand Prix, and have thought really hard, too hard, made mistakes. In this case, I just let go. I didn’t have any of the new cards, and didn’t practice, but I played pretty well and had a good deck. My deck had Circular Logic, so pretty much I could do what I wanted to do, and I could stop them from doing what they wanted to do; or I had a backstop to dig myself out of a mistake.”

What did you see, hear, or feel that let you play that way?

“I can tell you that I didn’t visualize winning the tournament… And I lost in the Top 8 (however, I definitely visualized myself winning basically every one of the team Grand Prixs). I hadn’t played very much, but I did a lot of goldfishing in front of the computer in order to get a feel for the deck.”

What made it possible for you to play that way?

“These were the cards I had, and I definitely think that I had/have ability. That is, especially in Limited, I have an advantage in that I know what to play, and what the opponent might play. I didn’t know the Extended environment, but I had Circular Logic.”

What did you get out of it?

“First of all, it felt good. I really didn’t feel any pressure, and I wasn’t expecting anything, so even when I lost in Top 8… Top 8 was great. Like I said, I didn’t visualize the win… But I was still able to compete at a high level, and have fun.”

Dan must have had a lot of fun because he expanded on his comeback. In more recent times, he’s won a PTQ, acquired a top rating, and most recently rattled off a 5-0 finish at 2007 Worlds during the Legacy Day 3.

Dr. Michael Pustilnik

In addition to his numerous other titles and Top 8s, MikeyP is a two-time Grand Prix winner, in Memphis with Squirrel Prison, and in Las Vegas with The Rock.

What was the most important element allowing you to win these events?

“A good deck.”

What do you mean by “a good deck”?

“In this case, it is a deck that has the advantage against the majority of the field; that is, it can win on its own merits regardless of player ability.”

What made it possible for you to play “a good deck”?

“Well, I had this friend Michael J. Flores who beat me in a Grand Prix Trial, won it, and then gave me the deck. ”

Let’s focus on the other one then…

“I practiced Squirrel Prison relentlessly, tested, and tuned leading up to the Grand Prix.”

What did you get out of it?

“Money and Pro Tour points. Magic was very important to me at the time. Of course it was fun, too… The wins led to pride and fond memories.”

Joshua Ravitz

Josh has numerous standout Grand Prix finishes under his belt, an individual Constructed Top 8 in Detroit, a teams Top 4 with the Max Fisher Players, and a string of near-misses. We focused on the Detroit Top 8, but touched on basically all of it.

What was the most important thing that allowed you to make this Top 8?

“100% it was the deck.

“I wasn’t good. In fact, I screwed up against Goblins in the Top 8, lost… but then came back to win. I lost basically whenever I played against someone who was better than me… I got crushed by Eugene.”

So it was 100% the deck? What do you mean by that?

“Let’s face it. There were three decks… And one of them was Zombies. I played a deck that beat Goblins, and I played against Goblins seven times. I made Top 8.

What did you see, hear, or feel that let you know that this was 100% the deck?

“I didn’t outplay anyone. The deck was just that good… Clearly the best deck. Everyone who played it made money. It’s just that Bob [Maher] was better than Eugene, even if his deck wasn’t better in the matchup.”

What made it possible for you to get this deck?

“I just happened to be friends with the previous Pro Tour winner. He decided his deck was so good that he could ignore this new card Goblin Warchief. He was right. He shipped his deck to everyone and we all made money.

“It’s like anything else. I went to a PTQ after Detroit and overheard someone say it was ‘Osyp’s Top 8′ behind my back. Whatever. I wasn’t good, but I had a strong network. I would go so far as to say that Osyp himself wouldn’t have won Venice without access to that network. He probably would have played some awful Zombie deck at the Pro Tour.

“In addition, I had three byes. I went to U.S. Nationals even though I wasn’t invited and played in some side events. One of them was a Grand Prix Trial, which I won. So the three byes kept me out of the matchups against non-real decks so I could just play against Goblins all day. I drew with Tony Tsai at the end of Day 1 (same 75); he finished Top 16.”

What did this Top 8 do for you? What did you get out of it?

“I got a taste.

“At that point I had done absolutely nothing noteworthy in Magic. However, it was about the time that Gabe Walls had come out, and I remember waking up and watching him play this awful Explosive Vegetation Rush of Knowledge deck. I asked myself ‘Is this fun?’ It was.

“Plus, I got confidence. I was completely incapable of winning a PTQ even after the Grand Prix… It felt good.”

Josh had a different take on his 10th place finish during Kamigawa Block (bad breakers, but Top 8 in terms of record).

What was the most important thing that allowed you to make this Top 8?

“You have to understand I had The Plague. I was so sick. I couldn’t eat. It was the Grand Prix where Lieberman beat Herberholz. I roomed with them Herberholz taught Lieberman how to win the mirror. Fifteen rounds later… etc.

“I was nauseous. I couldn’t eat. I certainly couldn’t play Gifts. But we had the White Weenie deck with Waxmane Baku. I played that. I won a lot with Waxmane Baku.

So it was the deck again?

“I lost three times. The first time was to Yurchick. Mirror match.

Mirror match? How did you lose? That is the one matchup you can’t ever lose!

“Yeah. Embarrassing. Truth is, I don’t remember. I also lost to LaPille who was playing my PT deck.

That was an awful matchup, though.

“Yeah. I lost one good matchup, one bad matchup, and I got a game loss. I always get a game loss. The game he won, he mulliganed to five, played two Sickening Shoals, and won with Tomb of Urami.

Let’s assume it was the deck. What made it possible for you to have that deck?

“Network again. Me and you. Friends. I was with Herberholz and Lieberman. I could have had their Gifts deck if I wanted that.

“Network is really important. Another good example is the most recent Grand Prix where two friends playing identical U/G ‘Tron decks make Top 8… That’s not an accident.”

What did you get out of it?

“I played that Grand Prix really well… But I probably should have left in Shining Shoal against LaPille. I think you have to win that matchup with Shining Shoal. Anyway, I was already on the gravy train, but it was more confidence.”

Osyp Lebedowicz

Osyp has four Grand Prix Top 8s to his name, but we chose to focus on his Mind’s Desire Top 8 in Boston and his Mirrodin Block win in Orlando with Affinity.

What was the most important element allowing you to make these Top 8s?

“I played the most powerful deck.”

What do you mean by “the most powerful deck?” What defines the most powerful deck?

“You can just look at the decks I played. The cards in those decks – Mind’s Desire, Disciple of the Vault, Aether Vial – are all banned in other formats.”

What allows you to identify the most powerful decks?

I approach a tournament and look at the most powerful cards that are available and I just play them.

What made it possible for you to identify these cards and make Top 8?

“Testing. When TOGIT was all together we had the best deck for at least three consecutive Grand Prixs (that was when Eugene was always in the finals).

“For the most part, most of the testing for Grand Prixs is done by above average PTQ players. Pros – the really dangerous players – don’t generally do much testing because they don’t have the time, or they look at a Grand Prix and assume they are going to play against players who are not as good as they are (and it’s true) so they don’t test.

“It’s rare for top players (like me) to really enjoy the process of testing Constructed.

“On the other hand, most people just insist on playing these terrible decks. I guess I got lucky in Orlando that the Vial Affinity deck from the Pro Tour just didn’t catch on. People played Paradise Mantle, which was great because then people thought Affinity was bad (with good reason) so they all played slow U/G decks. Affinity was bad if you didn’t have Aether Vial. That was all over after Orlando.

“For Boston, I just don’t know. I played the deck and made Top 8 like I thought I would. I don’t know why other people didn’t play U/W Desire… It was a known deck.”

What did you get out of it?

“I don’t really think a Grand Prix Top 8 is very impressive compared to a Pro Tour Top 8, but I like testing.”

Steve Sadin

What was the most important element allowing you to win Grand Prix: Columbus?

“I had literally the best deck of all time.”

Define that. What do you mean by “the best deck of all time”?

“In this case, it was the deck that was most likely to win the tournament.”

What did you see, hear, or feel that let you know that ?

“It was just a great deck. There were very few decks that could compete with it.”

What made it possible for you to have this deck?

“I was friends with Billy. I had taken time away from the game and hadn‘t done any testing. I didn‘t even really know how to win with my deck!”

What did this win do for you? What did you get out of it?

“The Columbus win changed my life in many ways. I had stepped away from Magic and didn’t really know what to expect. Like I said, I had no testing going in. The win itself it allowed me to play Magic professionally, which I do now. However, more than that it gave me confidence that I could actually do things and have a positive influence on my own life, which is huge.”

Part III. The Beginning

So what can we learn from these Models?

When you look at multiple exemplars this way, what you want to do is identify the overlap and internalize that. Deck seemed like a recurring theme – pretty much everyone emphasized the importance of the right deck, though Dan downplayed it – but I actually noticed something starting with the Model of Josh.

I had stopped MikeyP when he credited me with his deck (I had of course gotten The Rock from Sol Malka). However I realized with Josh, and saw it again with Osyp and Steve, that I was maybe asking the wrong questions.

Deck is important. Everyone said deck was important. But what seemed more important was network. Josh really emphasized it, referencing Osyp. Osyp talked about similar characters even as he took a very forthright position on deck selection. However, the real zinger was the unique one-on-one relationships that Mike and Steve (and to a lesser extent Josh) referenced. Network, whether it manifests itself as being friends with a particular expert deck designer or deck picker, or a group of interested players who are willing to test until they find some kind of secret knowledge. Look back at Dan’s first comment. GP win – Team Limited or no – he referenced a connection to Jonny Magic.

Let’s go back to deck for a moment. What is the model for the right deck? There are gurus who will reject Osyp’s model. For Pro Tours (rather than Grand Prixs) Osyp would reconsider the same model on the basis that Pros actually test for the Pro Tour, so it is less likely that you will be able to get away with just playing the best cards. One thing that absolutely no one showed a preference for was preference.

Dan played with cards he had.

MikeyP got beaten, and adopted a deck on that basis.

Josh acceded to a Pro Tour winner, with the right results.

The aforementioned Pro Tour winner, Osyp, has a very particular methodology for picking his deck, but rather than being based on preference, he bends with the dictates of the market.

Steve got handed a deck, that just happened to be the best deck ever.

Where is preference here?

Where is personal style?

Neither one of those things seems to be a factor when these players who have certainly not made Grand Prix Top 8s at one time or another actually made Top 8. “In fact,” Osyp added, “whenever I pick a deck on any other basis, I regret it.”

Everyone seemed to like Magic, have fun playing Magic, or to at least accrue fond memories in the process of winning a Grand Prix. That is probably the minimum we would expect from this crowd, though.

However, more than just liking Magic, the thing that I identified that seemed essentially universal was a sense of confidence. Dan said that he felt like he had the advantage against most opponents. Mike specifically derived pride from his wins. Josh said he played well. Steve called his Grand Prix win a life-changing event. Osyp didn’t talk about confidence directly, but he literally oozed confidence when we talked. I have not heard him with such conviction in his voice in… years, maybe.

I’ve Modeled quite a few people and abilities at this point (mostly strippers who are good at giving massages, detective work, writing poems, playing Dead or Alive, teasing men, and – predictably – sex). However, I am by no means a pro at this yet, so this might not be perfect. That said, I think there are some ways, if you are looking to improve on your Grand Prix performances, that you can extract and start working towards right away:

1) Byes. Only Josh talked about this specifically, but all of these guys are or were gravy train Pros at some point, and probably had three byes at the time of their top finishes (maybe not Dan in Boston). You don’t have to be a top Pro to have Grand Prix byes… Josh won his in Trials more than once. I know this one is kind of obvious even if it went largely unsaid, but I wanted to get it out there.

2) Deck. For purposes of a Constructed Grand Prix – like we will be participating in tomorrow – this seems pretty important. Basically everyone talked about how important their deck choices were. It really seems like whatever you like will be wrong and bad (no offense). Only MikeyP talked about relentless preparation with a particular archetype based on preference before his win, and that was only one of the wins. Conversely, most of them talked about having to play a particular deck based on market forces.

3) Network. When Gary Wise wanted to be a professional Magic player, he literally moved to the parts of America or England where he could sculpt a Magic culture around himself to give himself the support he needed to become the Hall of Fame caliber player he became. All of the players I Modeled buried ego to some extent in order to extract benefit from the network.

4) General Good Feelings. Have ‘em. Turn ‘em on.

5) Confidence. For the longest time I thought that physical attractiveness was the most important determinant (across economic levels, all things held equal, etc etc.) that helped to define successful people. It turns out the top of the hop may actually be confidence (BDM would say that confidence is attractive). A little confidence can leech a lot of expectation out of the opponent. Look at the greats. Jon defines confidence; it‘s hard to impress him. What did Jon say about Bob? Bob can make even the wrong plays with such flourish and charisma that the world will pause in order to appreciate the greatness of The Great One, even when he’s making mistakes.

There is lots of work to be done here; I hope that you got something out of these first steps.