Get Big or Die Trying: The 2006 Magic Invitational (Part 3)

Last week, Jeff began an epic narration of his wonderful run in the 2006 Magic Invitational. Today, he rounds off the report with his usual skill and grace. With the ultimate in Magical glory on the line, he faces all comers… and documents each and every thought along the way. A sublime conclusion to an incredible series.


I brought you a special present.

What is it?

Open it up.

[The kid does. He does his best to smile.] A tournament report?

That’s right. When I was your age, coverage was called reports. And this is a special report. It was the report my father used to read to me when I was sick, and I used to read it to your father. And today, I’m gonna read it to you.

Has it got any sports in it?

Are you kidding? Fencing. Fighting. Torture. Revenge. Giants. Monsters. Chases. Escapes. Ben Rubin. True love. Miracles.

[The kid manages a shrug.] It doesn’t sound too bad. I’ll try and stay awake.

Oh. Well, thank you very much. It’s very nice of you. Your vote of confidence is overwhelming. All right.

[Tournament report open now, he begins to read…]


I’m 10-2 at the Magic Invitational, and Nassif asks, “This is the tournament you decide to finally run good at?”

Indeed, this is a tournament without a cash prize. To others, a victory here will remain intangible; an awkward moment after they ask “so how much did you win?”

In the words of one GQ columnist on Finkel’s 2000 victory, and the prize of creating his own card: “Whoop-de-doo, loser.”

But those in the game understand what this means. Having one’s name added to the ultimate shortlist: Mike Long, Jon Finkel, Kai Budde. This, and only this, is Magic immortality.

With a victory here, I could retire satisfied.

There are three rounds to go, and catastrophe still looms.

Canali and Barbero are both at 7-5. Kenji is at 8-4.

For Canali to get in he needs:

*to 3-0 (beating Antoine along the way)
*Antoine to 0-3
*Kenji to 1-2 or worse

For Barbero to get in he needs:

*to 3-0 (beating me along the way)
*Me to 0-3
*Kenji to 1-2 (and to beat exactly only me)
*Hell to freeze over
*Pigs fly
*Angels win pennant

The chance of a Kenji upset is much more realistic, since he still has to play both me and Antoine, and since he’s the level 99 Celestial Stoneblade.

No offense to Barbero, but he’s like the level 1 default Blade you get at the start of the game.

I was looking forward to arriving at the next town so that I could sell him for 5 gold.

There were a lot of ways for Kenji to get in, even though the sum total of the possibilities only occupied a margin. Most paths involved him going 3-0. Two things were evident:

This would be a real bad time to 0-3.
Beat Kenji and I’m in.

Magic tournaments seem to have similar trajectories. The first days, everyone is restrained as they remain mentally focused for the tournament. As people fall out of contention, and become more familiar with those is attendance, they relax, and the environment becomes more chaotic. Usually the rowdies are kept separate from the contenders. In this case, they were still playing in the tournament. There was an odd mixture left… people in contention for the finals playing against people with a spot already secured in the middle of the pack.

I’m sitting there sweating out my decadent build, while my neighbors prattle loudly in high-pitched voices.

Decadent Sealed, in case any of you ever get a chance to do one, is insanely fun. A booster draft – cracking 3 boosters just to play some games – already seems decadent to me, so opening 22 packs is like a hedonistic orgy.

I had thought that with so many cards, one could preplan the type of deck they wanted to build even before they open their cards. I wanted Blue Black with lots of cheap spells and discard. From playing a lot of Cube with my stoner friends, I knew Bog Down would be the nuts in this format.

In the end, my build really was dictated mostly by what I opened. I tried a lot of options, but R/G seemed the most synergistic and with the most powerful cards. By far the card I was most excited to open was Chrome Mox.

This is what I came up with.

In the words of Al Pacino impressionists everywhere: Hoo-hah!

Round 13 I play Barbero himself.

I come out like gangbusters in Game 1, pumping out Quirion Ranger, Grizzly Bears, Gnarled Mass, and Jade Leech. He holds his ground with Gold Myr, Pardic Arsonist, a Galvanic Arc to kill the Gnarled Mass, and then a Pacifism for my Jade Leech.

Finally, he drops the bomb: Siege Gang Commander.

I raise; Arcane Teachings on the Jade Leech and kill the Commander with the help of the Ranger.

On his turn he tanks. And tanks.

I prompt him verbally and in-game.

“Whose turn is it? I nodded off.”

“Are you lagged or just tanking?”

“Seriously, I’m going to call the judge.”

He eventually concedes. “I didn’t want you to see it.”

Game 2, Jose starts with a couple of Plains and a Gold Myr. I have Quirion Ranger, Quirion Explorer, and a Goblin Chariot. He gets a slow start with Gold Myr, Wingbeat Warrior, and no Mountains. We trade guys for a bit, and soon I’m just attacking him with a 2/1 and the Ranger. He gets up to his second Mountain and casts Siege Gang Commander.

I drop the Arcane Teachings I’ve been slow-rolling, and kill it again, and Jose starts flashing red. He Afterlifes it, and then plays a guy. We trade off and I play another guy.

He slams down Hunted Dragon (the surprise) on his turn, and gets in. I Violent Eruption him, untap, attack, and then Galvanic Arc him.

Jose is frustrated at first, but quickly snaps out of tournament mode, and returns to his usual happy self, standing behind other competitors and chanting “Must beeee” (as in, “must be nice”) in sing-song while they’re playing.


As important as my games are others’. Antoine beats Siron in one tight match, and Kenji beats Williams in another.

The idea of being 11-2 in the Invitational and still having a very real chance of missing Top 2 is flummoxing.

Round 14, it’s either Osyp or Kenji… and it’s Osyp

Game 1, he goes Maggot Carrier, Putrid Imp, and then Villainous Ogre, and I’m thinking, Jesus Osyp, if you’re going to dump to me at least make it look good.

This doesn’t change the fact that I am getting ridiculously mana-flooded – I can’t draw anything. Eventually he overwhelms me, finishing me with – dear God – Scorching Missile.

Zvi mentioned a bit of dialogue in our match: “Jeff Cunningham plays turn-2 Chrome Mox, throwing away Volcanic Eruption to play Goblin Chariot. Maybe this isn’t quite Limited after all. “I guess that’s what passes for entertainment these days,” noted his opponent Osyp, amongst the chuckles.”

In fact, the “that’s what passes for entertainment these days” line was referring to the Barbero-Soh match, where Canali and Barbero were catcalling Terry Soh.

“Thierry Soh!”
“Must bee!!”
“Wakka wakka wakka”
Terry Soh is a firecrotch”

Okay, that last one was me.

In game 2, I keep a two-lander and don’t get there. He does me in, again, with some combination of Putrid Imp, Bile Urchin, El-Hajjaj, and whatever else he could find in the 25-cent bin.

11:39 INV_JeffCunningham has lost the connection.


My loss here guarantees Antoine a spot. He finds out just as he’s playing Game 3 against Kenji. If he loses, then it – all of this so far, my 11-2 start – is down to one match against Kenji.

Antoine’s hand looks great, though, and Kenji just keeps drawing land. Antoine wins, and Kenji can’t catch up anymore.

I’m in the finals!

I share this news with a few people, but most of them either thought I was guaranteed in four rounds ago or are busy worrying about coming in last.

It’s a little difficult to succinctly express how I was feeling at the time. Fortunately, I took some notes: “hard to breathe, feels like floating / So full of love, my heart’s exploding / Mouth is dry, hands are shaking / My heart is yours, for the taking / Acting weird, not myself / Dancing around, like the Keebler elf.”

I play Kenji Round 15 and it’s predictably anti-climactic. I’m not entirely focused on the match, but still take him apart in two, with great draws. Without going into the details, please rest assured that Kenji went with the utmost peace and tranquility. I held his hand in those last minutes, and he had a very serene smile.


I’m not sure how the formats were selected, but we’re going to play Duplicate, Block, and Auction in the finals. Antoine and I agree to arrange them Block, Duplicate, and Auction. Both of us know the block matchup is great for me, probably around 75-80% in my favor and, as Antoine says, if I lose that one I’m “in trouble.”

Before the Finals, the Magic Online brand manager approaches me to tell me that a news crew would like to interview the finalists. They never end up doing me, but they did do the manager himself, in what has to be one of the most awkward things I’ve ever seen.

There isn’t much ceremony. The fifteenth round ends, they tell us they’re ready. We shake hands, wish each other luck, and then I make a game and we start the finals.


I remember the finals quite well. We were at the feature match table, Rosewater and Buehler were doing live commentary, and a good crowd had gathered. Nassif and Williams were in my corner, and Siron, Oli, and Canali were in Ruel’s.

My first hand was almost the nuts. Wild Mongrel, Elephant Guide, and a Logic for his Restraint, and he has no game left.

In the second game, he asks if I have a Mongrel for the fourth game out of the five that we’ve played so far. I grin suggestively and give him my best “come-hither” look. “I guess there’s only one way to find out, sailor?”

He Addles me Green, hitting Elephant Guide and nothing else.

I rip a Mongrel right off the top.

Before I can even process it, the entire crowd gasps.

It’s happening…

I drop it, and he laughs. He misses a land drop, while I Quiet Speculation into gas.

I win the first match, and I’m just one away from winning the Invitational.


Afterwards, Nassif criticizes a play I made on the last turn of the game. I could’ve flashed back Deep Analysis instead of hard-casting one to draw either an Island, or an Arrogant Wurm to win the game immediately (in case he had Pernicious Deed). As it turns out, I didn’t draw either, he didn’t have Deed, and I almost certainly win anyway even if he does, but the criticism still lingered in my thoughts.

I take a quick walk. I feel good, I don’t feel overly nervous, but there is another feeling – I can sense the history of the occasion. I’m thinking that whatever happens in these next two matches is something I’m always going to remember.

When I was invited to the Invitational I knew there was some chance that I would win and get my card.

Now, I know that there is an excellent chance that I will win and get my card. It’s so close that I can taste it.

I have had this feeling before.

Before my first road test, it struck me, “I could be driving by tonight.” You see, for me, for some reason, learning to drive had been a big deal. The thought of myself actually, legally, driving, was something I had never visualized. It was also something I really wanted.

Now, I was a fine driver… a little shaky, but a fine driver. I failed that road test, and I failed three more before getting my license. I had that, “by tonight, I could be driving” feeling, each and every single time before. A sort of self-consciousness reflection.

I try to evade this sensation; this act of sampling the reward before it has arrived. Sometimes I try to picture myself winning, and focus only on that.

I have this image, now, of Nassif – my coach and cheering squad – congratulating me.

Game 1, I finally get punished for my bad splash.

Swamp, Swamp, Island, Island, Repulse, Adamaro, Sudden Impact. If one of those Swamps is a Mountain, this is a great keep. It isn’t, and I mulligan quickly.

The second hand has no land. I can’t remember what the five card was, but it wasn’t pretty. I don’t play anything and get rolled.

After the game, Nassif is incredulous about my opener – “you mulliganed that?”

Did I miss something?

In hindsight, this hand was a lot closer that I thought – this format is slow, Repulse buys time, and I have a runner-runner Adamaro draw. That said, I would still mulligan it now.

I don’t enjoy being criticized by spectators while I’m playing.

I remember when this whole ugly run started. Pro Tour London, I was 6-1. I came to Day 2 ready to play.

I won the first game of Day 2, with my terrible deck, then got manascrewed the next two. I got crushed the next match.

In the next draft I started 2-0. I was up a game at 8-3. My opponent kept saying how bad his deck was, and how he didn’t have a shot. I got manascrewed the next two games.

In the final draft, still with an outside shot, I play Tim Aten in the first round feature match. I was a good U/R against his U/B, and we were both low on life. At one point, he attacks me with a random 2/2 and I decline an opportunity to trade. He ninjas a Throat Slitter and ruins me.

The coverage reports this as: “Inexplicably, Cunningham decided to take it and was wrecked by a Throat Slitter that took out his Baku.”

The crowd reacted similarly – why didn’t I block?

I didn’t know he had Throat Slitter.

I had a Consuming Vortex and a Torrent of Stone and I wanted him to have two creatures in play so that I could efficiently splice.

That’s my explanation, and I think it pretty much covers the bases. I guess to a layman doing retrograde analysis, the play may seem inexplicable.

I could hear certain members of the crowd saying I was playing terribly, no doubt referring to that specific turn. This frustrated and distracted me. I wanted to say something. I became unfocused. I had already been on edge.

Something changed for game 2. I was playing conservatively. Worst of all, visibly, my heart was no longer in it.

I had felt myself mentally lose track of the match and then, instead of regrouping, I just gave up.

After that, my tournament was over. I lost a pathetic match against Hoaen, and then beat a terrible W/B deck to finish in the money.

While I was no superstar beforehand, my PT finishes afterwards have been abysmal. I do think that London broke my spirit in some ways. Losing is one thing, but giving up is another.

Perhaps Magic is in some ways like boxing. No matter how solid, one can only sustain so many blows to the head over a prolonged career before their mind starts to weaken.

I have been on the Pro Tour for a long time.

But the point was, though I didn’t realize it at the time, that Nassif’s criticism – that any criticism during a game – is probably not going to help you win. After the match, good – when there’s time to discuss. But, during, when there’s only time to absorb, I’m not sure that inspiring doubt can be helpful.

So I’m taking this Magic road test, and I’m in that weird mental state combined with Nassif beside me, and a sudden sense of doubt. Maybe I’m mulliganing too much?

Game 2’s not a problem. I get a turn 3 Adamaro and a turn 4 Solfatara.

One game away now…

Game 3’s where I see the first real crack in my play. I keep a two-lander with some four-drops. I can’t remember the exact hand, but while the replays were up, I looked at it and couldn’t believe I kept.

My deck doesn’t offer any help and I get rolled.


For some reason it didn’t hit me at the time, but it wasn’t quite like I had two equal chances at winning left after I won Block. The Duplicate matchup was my good shot. The Auction decks favor Ruel heavily.

Sometime in the middle of game 1 I realize this, and start to feel like Henry Rowengartner in Rookie of the Year after his arm reverts back to normal, trying to steal a bases clucking like a chicken. My deck’s just outmatched – it’s like playing Block against Vintage.

I mulligan and get a slow start. I can make decent blocks and get 1/1 flyers, but with him reanimating my creatures, and with me already behind, it’s impossible to get ahead.

Game 2, he coercions an elf, reanimates it, plays Bob, and Vindicates a land, which doesn’t affect me at all. He takes 6 from Bob, and I slowly and surely start to do some damage with my elves. Nothing of his can really block, because that just leaves me with a more threatening Spirit token. Any advantage I have is very tenuous, as he is drawing three cards now with a Shadowmage.

We’re both empty-handed and I draw a Cabal Therapy, and burn it just to flashback it with my Herald to get a Spirit token. He’s suddenly a couple turns from getting nickel and dimed to death.

Antoine draws a Sensei’s Divining Top and uses it. I’m searching the crowd for reads. Canali, Siron and Olivier are going wild.

Guess he got there. Guess it’s Jitte.

He passes the turn and I attack him with everything. No blocks, down to 1.

He untaps, draws, uses the Top again and…. concedes. Canali et al knew I was watching, and were on a stone laugh-bluff.

So it’s all down to game 3.

Antoine decides to play and keeps his hand.

I have a Husk, an elf, a Natural Affinity, and some lands. He takes the elf, and reanimates it. I play a land.

He Vindicates it.

I play a land.

He plays a Dark Confidant.

I play a land, and a Herald.

He Confidants a Chrome Mox, then plays a Jitte. He then plays a Chrome Mox, imprinting Voidmage Prodigy, and passes the turn without equipping.

For a second I’m thinking how good Husk is going to be here (with Natural Affinity to always threaten lethal), and then my heart sinks – he obviously has a Counterspell.

I draw a Sadistic Hypnotist to go with my Husk, Affinity, and Llanowar Elf.

One option is to play the elf, hope to draw a land next turn, and bait a Counterspell with the Hypnotist.

The other is to play Husk into it.

Playing the Elf seems like the better play, but it’s actually futile. If I draw land, play the Hypnotist, he Counters it, and then can reanimate it, empty my hand, and get Jitte going.

I think it over and just can’t imagine myself winning with that play.

If I play Husk, maybe, just maybe, he doesn’t have the Counterspell. Maybe he needed to play the Mox anyway, and the value of bluffing Counterspell outweighed the value of equipping Jitte that turn. It was a long shot, but at the time it seemed like the only way.

In hindsight, the Elf’s the play. Not so I can play the Hypnotist next turn, for the reasons I stated, but in the hopes of drawing a Duress or Cabal Therapy to guard Husk. It’s also just not a good idea to allow Husk to get into the graveyard for reanimation – it’s a huge threat on his side of the board.

He has the Counterspell of course… He Recoils my Herald (I lose the Affinity) and gets counters on Bob.

I play the Herald again and pass.

At this point the server goes down.

Is this the equivalent of the blizzard on test day? “Guess we’ll just have to restart, then? Damn,” I offer. They inform me that they will recreate the game with paper cards if they need to, or just wipe it and call it a geegee for Antoine.

While we’re waiting for it to go back up, I start to realize that my game situation still isn’t that bad. Herald can get Zealot to kill Jitte, and then my Tokens start to become threatening. There is hope.

The server goes back up. He attacks with Bob. I block, and search up Zealot.

He plays Meddling Mage on it and in that instant I know I’m dead.



What did Jeff mean, “I’m dead,” I mean he didn’t mean dead. He’s only faking, right?

You want me to read this or not?

Who gets Ruel?

I don’t understand.

Who beats Ruel? At the end, somebody’s got to do it. Is it Nassif? Who?

Nobody. Nobody beats him. He wins.

He wins? Jesus, Grandpa! What did you read me this thing for?

You know, you’ve been very sick and you’re taking this story very seriously. I think we better stop now.

No! I’m okay. I’m okay.

Okay. All right, now, let’s see. Where were we? Oh yes. In the Pit of Despair


It took a few turns, but it was over. The image of Nassif congratulating me was finally eclipsed by a second image, one that had begun creeping into my vision in the middle of the match, of him shrugging and offering me condolences – reality.

Antoine had won. Of course Antoine had won. Suddenly it was if there had never been any other possibility.

It occurs to me that maybe coming in second will allow me a better chance at qualifying for next year’s Invitational, but the thought almost makes me sick.

After missing Top 8 at Worlds 2003, Berkowitz was disappointed, saying that the weekend had just been a blur of wins… and yet here he was.

The thought of trying to do it all over again is almost too much to take. This had been my chance.

Terry Soh says that “there was only one actual winner in this event and fifteen losers… it’s actually irrelevant if you are in second place or sixteenth.” Maybe this is true.

In any case, there is no $22,000 consolation prize for this tournament, and some will argue that this defeat represents an even rockier bottom than before.

Matias Jorstedt, Dan Clegg, and Ben Rubin know the feeling. I hope that they will welcome me into the light.

Thank you for reading. Writing this report was like the German Operation Barbarosa (which, incidentally, was what Dave Williams was accidentally calling Barbero all weekend), and I am exhausted.

As Josh Ravitz always says, “Not interested in the story, just tell me your record.” Yet we share the story anyway.

Jeff Cunningham