Friends In High Places: Invitational Top 8

Ben Hayes reflects on the Invitational, his friends, and this Magic community that we’re all a part of. He tells you how you can make huge strides in your game, and outside of it. His Top 8 is a culmination of important lessons learned.

Friday, 3:00 am, New York

“Hey Ben, kick some ass.”

She was only being nice, I guess, but still I didn’t want to simply acknowledge the encouragement and leave it at that. Maybe it was the alcohol, or
possibly the fact that we’d just watched Superbad, but most likely it was that I wasn’t ready to face the responsibilities I’d been hiding
from that night.

“Thanks, but it’s not really about that. I’m going to see my friends.”

“Just got home, pretty drunk, worried that if I go to sleep I’ll miss the flight since I haven’t had more than an hour of sleep at a time since
last Friday.”

Josh Jacobson was kind enough to make sure I woke up for my flight, and in return I graciously allowed him to make fun of me for ordering chicken
fingers from a diner at 6 am. They were very, very bad.

Fast forward past the part where we argued over whether it was LaGuardia or JFK that had the ballin’ food court and the part where we made a bunch of
incredibly loud and inappropriate jokes on the bus from the airport to the runway.

Friday, 1:00pm, Indianapolis

After checking in for the event, I planted myself at the hotel Starbucks and worked for about four hours, until Patrick Sullivan showed up to check us
into the room. This was the first time I was really meeting Pat; we’d been introduced at the StarCityGames.com Open in Edison but hadn’t exactly done
any bonding. It turns out that Pat and I are both professional game designers, so we ended up having a lot to talk about and quickly hit it off.

Heading back to the event site, I walked around for a while, mostly catching up with friends. I was set on playing the same 150 as Gerry, and I hadn’t
playtested either format at all, so I kept the Magic-related talk to a minimum. Adam Prosak helped me almost convince myself to audible to U/R Splinter
Twin, but that thought only lasted until I saw the list Gerry had cooked up.

“Beautiful” was the first word that came to mind. My second reaction was a flashback of sitting next to Reid Duke, registering for a PTQ.

“How do your board against the mirror?”

I arranged the cards in front of me to answer his question.

“Just play that.”

I think Gerry and Chapin have said all there is to say about this deck, so I’ll just say that while playing it, I felt unstoppable. Every so often, I
have the pleasure of playing a deck that I can tell is just clearly a level higher than the rest of the field. My record in the Standard portion of the
event doesn’t reflect how good the deck was. I ran very poorly in Standard and still managed to Top 8.

For Legacy I played the UW Control list that Gerry, Chapin, and Drew designed.

As you might expect, it was a powerhouse. I hadn’t played a game of Legacy since before Providence, which I did not attend, but something just didn’t
seem right about Stoneforge Mystic in a Legacy control deck. What did I have instead of Stoneforge Mystic? Repeal and Wrath of God. Now are those
better cards than Stoneforge Mystic and Batterskull in a vacuum? Probably not, but they were a hell of a lot better in the context of the rest of my

After a good night’s sleep—one of the many perks of staying in the room full of old men—I was ready for battle.

Saturday, 10:00am, Indianapolis

Most of my matches were essentially by the books, so I’ll just mention the few rounds where interesting things happened, either in-game decisions
or interactions with my opponents.

Round 1, Matthew White – Caw Blade

I mulliganed to five in each of the three games we played and just barely lost Game 3 to a Mirran Crusader with Sword of War and Peace. After the
match, my opponent asked me if I was running Into the Roil. When I told him I wasn’t, he asked me if I was worried about Splinter Twin, so I explained
to him that I had three Dismember in my maindeck and four Spellskites in the sideboard. He followed that up by saying that his testing group had found
that they needed Into the Roil to protect against the turn 4 kill in the mirror. If I had been in a different mood, that statement might have caused me
to tilt, but because doing well in the tournament wasn’t actually that important to me, I was able to let it roll off.

Everyone has an approach to tournament Magic that works best for them. I do best when the tournament doesn’t mean very much to me. I’ve
been playing Magic at a high level for long enough that I don’t get into many situations in which I don’t know the technically correct
play. I get into trouble when I start second-guessing myself, which is a result of feeling that I need to be absolutely sure that my line of play is
correct. That over-thinking often leads me to a worse line than I had in the first place.


Round 6, Anthony Avitollo – RUG Counterbalance

After picking up a draw in the second round, I’d managed to rattle off three straight wins to put myself at 3-1-1. Anthony is a great guy, and I
wasn’t happy to be paired against him so early in the tournament, especially when I felt that my matchup was very favorable. As I had thought might be
the case, Ancestral Vision basically decided the match. I resolved them and therefore came out ahead after a bunch of 1-for-1 trades. I also managed to
keep Counterbalance off the table, which is the other half of the match. A big problem for the Counterbalance deck in this matchup is that even if they
do get their combo together, you can just manland them to death. Celestial Colonnade was the MVP of this match and singlehandedly won one of the games.


Round 7, Jim Davis – Goblins

Jim is another friend, great guy, and generally awesome human. While I felt that my Goblins matchup would be favorable, I wasn’t so sure about my Jim
Davis matchup. I knew I couldn’t afford any mistakes against such a strong opponent, so I resolved to play tight and give it my all, even though I
secretly wanted my friend to win.

Game 1 played out perfectly for me; I countered everything he did for the first few turns and then landed Jace and Crucible of Worlds with three Swords
to Plowshares and Wrath of God in hand to his empty board and severely diminished hand. On the next turn, Jim resolved Aether Vial, and I died about
eight turns later, never hitting a second white source for my Wrath (or a fifth land drop in general) despite brainstorming with Jace about six or
seven times.

You could say I got unlucky here, and I did, but Jim also played his cards perfectly to minimize my draws, and it’s very likely that a less skilled
player wouldn’t have been able to close the game out before I would have retaken control.

Game 2 I got rolled over by an early Goblin Lackey backed up by Mental Misstep, and Gempalm Incinerator + Wasteland for my Factories. Goblins are bad
because everyone is playing Mental Misstep? Guess they’ll just have to play some of their own; madman or genius?


Round 8, Christian Keeth – NO RUG

NO RUG is the deck I was planning to play when I showed up to the tournament site on Friday afternoon. Reid Duke is a longtime friend of mine, and I’d
been chatting with him about the deck for about two weeks leading up to the Invitational. I had no idea how the matchup was for the U/W Control deck,
but I figured that having Wrath of God as a maindeck answer to Progenitus would be very good.

This match ended up playing out in very much the same way as the one against RUG Counterbalance. Ancestral Vision was the key to staying ahead, and
Natural Order was his CounterTop. I won both games pretty easily, and nothing special really happened, except a stack that included Brainstorm, five Mental Missteps, and a Red Elemental Blast. I believe Gavin Verhey has a picture of that stack, but I could be mistaken.


I wasn’t too disappointed considering I started the day at 0-1-1, but I definitely wasn’t excited about my record either. I had no idea what kind of
record I’d need to make Top 8, and frankly, thankfully, I wasn’t even thinking about it.

Gerry, Pat, and I went out to Kurt Hahn’s place for pizza and wings. I hadn’t met or heard of Kurt before the weekend, but he’s a quality guy, and his
hospitality was not only a nice way to end a long day but also served to restore some of my faith in the Magic community.

Lately I’ve been disappointed with the way most of my Magic-playing peers act towards each other. I find there to be a general lack of respect and, for
lack of a better word, realness. People who get good tend to become concerned with their brand or image and can quickly transform into something very

It wasn’t just that Kurt bought the pizza and made us feel welcome; it was the fact that he wasn’t doing it to impress anyone. He was doing it because that’s what you do when your friends come to town.

Eventually Kurt drove us back to our hotel, and we parted ways. Gerry and I stayed up in the hotel lobby until about 4 am chatting about all manner of
life-related things. The tournament was the last thing on my mind, and I only gave in to sleep because I was literally unable to keep my eyes open.

I started off Day 2 by going 3-0 in the Legacy portion and felt pretty good going into Standard.

Round 12, Edgar Flores – Caw Blade

Edgar and I traded the first two games with each of us mulliganing in the games that we lost. I mulliganed again in the deciding game and eventually
lost a long game where I drew very poorly but almost won a couple times through capitalizing on Edgar’s overconfidence from his advantaged
position. Playing tight when you’re behind is just as important as playing tight when you’re ahead, and no single turn or main phase is
necessarily inconsequential. After my loss here, I wasn’t sure whether I could Top 8 anymore. I suspected not, based on what I’d heard people
saying, but I didn’t really think too much of it.


Round 14, Ben Wienburg – Caw Blade

This match is on camera, but it’s a shame that they covered it because it wasn’t remotely close. Ben suffered from mulligans and mana problems in both
games, and for me they were basically an exercise in not accidentally getting a game loss. I did not get a game loss, and it was on to Top 8.


Quarterfinals – Edgar Flores – Esper Stoneblade

I took a quick first game by trading 1-for-1 until my Vision resolved and then closing the game out with Jace alternating between Brainstorming and
Fatesealing. Games 2 and 3 I didn’t see the cards I needed despite resolving a Vision or two that just hit land clumps. Bitterblossom was a real pain
to deal with, and I probably could have won either game fairly easily if it hadn’t been for that. I got many more turns than I should have had in Game
3 because Edgar waited a very long time to move either of his Batterskulls over to a Faerie token, but eventually he did, and I didn’t draw the
runner-runner that I needed to stabilize.


Since just a week earlier I hadn’t even been planning to go to the Invitational, I was very excited to have done so well. I really can’t stress enough
the importance of staying focused on each individual round during a tournament. At no point on Saturday or Sunday did I ever think about what record I
would need to make Top 8 or how much money was on the line in any of my matches. As I said early, the tournaments that I’ve done the best in are the
ones where I’ve had this attitude, and it’s shocking how much the difference is like night and day.

I’m incredibly lucky that the Magic players I enjoy hanging out with outside of the game also happen to be brilliant deckbuilders, and I owe a lot of
my success from this tournament to Gerry, Drew, and Chapin, who put in a ton of effort to design two outstanding decks.

Doing well in a competitive field has rekindled some of my fire. To say that I have “the fire” again would be an exaggeration, because my full time job
makes it unrealistic for me to be the kind of grinder that a lot of my friends are, but I’ve certainly been checking delta.com a lot more than I have
in past months.

I’ve been playing Magic for as long as I can remember, and as I’ve matured into the player I am now, I like to think I’ve learned a thing or two. I’ve
mentioned a big one already, focusing on each round individually, but I’d like to mention one more.

As I’m sure some of you have noticed, Magic imitates life in many ways, some more subtle than others. Have you ever heard someone talk about how people
get jobs? Well I’ll tell you here: it’s through connections. Everything you do around other people affects how they view you, and if you act
reasonably and respectably, people see that, which gives you more opportunities to make good things happen for yourself.

At PT Austin, I was just some random kid playing in a PTQ when I got paired against Gerry. We’d never spoken before, but I was genuinely nice and a
good sport during our match, so we ended up talking and getting to know each other after that. Through knowing Gerry, I’ve not only made an extremely
loyal and good friend, but I’ve also gained access to plenty of decks for major tournaments that I probably never would have known about
otherwise. The next time you’re playing against some “random” who rips their one-of Tormod’s Crypt on the last possible turn, take a moment
before you make yourself look like a psycho, and remember that you don’t always know who your opponent is. What if that’sa friend of mine and
through him, you get to know me and all of the people I know? Being rude and disrespectful to your opponent will never actually get you anywhere,
whereas the opposite has the potential to be life-changing. In familiar terms, I’m really just telling you to make the higher EV play.

Ben Hayes