Getting There

After getting second place at a PTQ last weekend with his U/W Control list, Adrian Sullivan reflects on how he first started playing Magic competitively.

One of the hardest things to do in any kind of competition is to come close but not quite get there.

"Getting there" is different to different people. I remember when I first started playing competitive Magic—or rather what I thought was competitive Magic. In some ways, you can imagine this story is a sort of "Adrian Sullivan" origins story . . .

The Beginning

My Office

In my office, I have a set of posters that dates back to the early days of Magic: The Charity Fellowship posters. I’ve been told that this was the first licensed Magic product, and while I’m not sure whether it’s true or not, I’ve loved these posters since I first got them when Arabian Nights was first out, though I can’t remember how I first found out about The Charity Fellowship. Sometimes when I think about the few boxes of Arabian that I bought back then, I wish I could tell young me to keep them in a lockbox, but hey, Magic is a pretty poor use of time travel.

In late 1993 before I got my Arabians, a few of the lucky of us still weren’t sure why some of our Magic cards were black bordered and some of them were white bordered, and it would be a long time before we knew that "Beta" was a thing. I’m still not sure who it was that brought Beta to La Crosse, Wisconsin, where I grew up, but I was thankful for it.

We didn’t have many cards among those of us who played, but pretty quickly Unlimited came and we got as much as we could. Early on I still remember my first big trade: a Shivan Dragon. Everyone wanted one. I had it. I got rid of it for a Lord of the Pit and a Dark Ritual.

In the beginning, we all played all of the cards we had. We played for ante (how I lost my second Black Lotus). We played one-on-one, and we played group games. We particularly liked Five Point Magic, a really fun group variant where five players all sit, each representing a color like on the back of the Magic card, and you win when your two enemy colors die for any reason (turns move like a star; if you started at white, from white to black to green to blue to red back to white).

Eventually, we’d gone pretty far with our game. I was the first player to realize you didn’t have to play all of your colors—I cut red, and my wins went up immensely. My friend Kevin Jacobson took the next logical step and cut down to monocolored. Despite his much weaker card pool, he was still easily winning the most. At that point, we all quickly shifted into what were in retrospect pretty primitive Constructed decks, but we loved it. One player, Brad, definitely went to the next level with deckbuilding, and he felt pretty impossible to best in non-group games.

At our local shop, Next Generation, what it meant to "get there" was to approach where Brad was at. We wanted to be the "one to beat" at the shop. Eventually, when we started having small tournaments, it was usually the case that he’d be one of the people to beat, but the goal was to have it be you.

I actually can’t remember how big these tournaments were. Looking back, I’d be surprised if we ever hit 30, and I think it was more like fifteen to twenty. It didn’t matter. We loved the competition. I definitely really loved it, but I had plenty of other outlets for that for me. I was a runner and basically a star in track and cross country. I did debate. I played intramural sports. I look back at it and wonder how I ever had the time to do it all, but then again when high school is your "job," you have a lot more free time than when you have an actual job.

At one high point, I remember winning a "Type 1" tournament at the shop, beating a really great opponent in the finals who wasn’t in our playgroup. Type 1 was the then-name for Vintage. My deck was in retrospect laughably bad, but I didn’t know any better. I just played all the Black Vises I could and bounced things. Brad either wasn’t there that day or had some bad luck, but whichever it was, I remember being so excited for that win. Just making the finals—heck, just doing better than the people I regularly played with would have been a "got there!" moment for me, so winning the whole thing was fantastic.

The Fire Starts

It wasn’t much later that I went off to college in glorious Madison, Wisconsin. Despite that win, I hadn’t yet gotten into tournaments in earnest, but college would change that.

As I said before, I had a pretty competitive high school life. Between sports and academic competition, I was steeped in it. Going to the University of Wisconsin-Madison meant something important for that part of my life—I couldn’t reasonably compete through the school.

This was a big blow to me. As a high school runner, I was a consistent varsity athlete from when I started as a freshman, and our team was an incredibly competitive Division I school. Two twin brothers were the de facto leaders of our cross country team, and they were a Cross Country and Track (two mile) State Champion, respectively. At the University of Wisconsin, however, they weren’t even on varsity. And as good as I felt I was, they were much better than me. Much, much better than me. I need some place to compete where I felt there was a huge challenge but I could compete, so college started out leaving me feeling like there were a big unfilled hole in my life.

I was looking for something to do to feed that competitive spirit when I discovered the Madison Magic community, which held a weekly gathering they called Guild. It was incredible. Roughly 100 people gathered together to play CCGs at a community center downtown, mostly Magic. The hardcore crew among them would even stop by a local IHOP to play until 2 or 3 in the morning, often playing an extended Sealed Deck league in addition to slinging Constructed decks; even in 1995, Madison was a place that preferred Limited.

One night I met Jim Hustad, and he pretty thoroughly walloped me in Constructed just as the community center was closing. I felt pretty disappointed because I thought my deck was pretty great, so I asked if he wanted to continue some more games over at IHOP. He agreed, and while everyone else played the Sealed league, I played Jim in Constructed, getting thoroughly destroyed by him.

Years later he would tell me he saw a look in my eyes that told him that he shouldn’t say "no" when I asked him if he wanted to play another game. We played again and again, and he won every game. I kept escalating the power of my deck until I was playing my tournament-winning Type 1 deck against his Type 2 (Standard) deck. And again he crushed me.

It was eye opening. There was such a bigger world of play out there than I had yet experienced. Deckbuilding mattered more than I realized, and there was a huge difference between the weapon I was bringing to the fight and what Jim was bringing. It wasn’t much later that I was traveling with Jim and a few other players to a huge event in Chicago (a 700-plus player Regionals) and saw just how big the world of organized play was and the possibilities for competition.

I had found that competitive outlet. I had found the fire. I was lucky enough to be playing in a thriving Magic community, and there were a lot of players to be found that were simply better than me, so growing upward was inevitable as long as I wanted to dedicate the work. And I did want to dedicate the work.

A few weeks later, I went to my first PTQ up in Minneapolis as the fifth person in a car full of the best players Madison then had to offer. I was just excited to be joining these guys, the best players I knew at the time.

The event wasn’t run correctly (we played for ante in the PTQ), but it was exciting to see a room full of players playing in a tournament like this. There were 149 players in that event, Ice-Alliance Sealed; I was the only one in our car not to make Top 8. I ended up at 3-3 before I dropped, but I felt pretty good about it despite everything. My friend Jim, who had handed me the epic parade of losses that night in IHOP months earlier, ended up winning the whole thing, and now I had a new goal. It wasn’t to win a PTQ yet; I just wanted to Top 8.

The Flame Takes Hold

I would get pretty close to qualifying the next season, with a pair of Top 16s (X-2) in the two Pro Tour Dallas PTQs I played in with a B/W Control deck of my own design. This was an exciting turn of events, and I was already writing online, albeit for USENET, the then equivalent of Twitter when it came to Magi -networking.

Very few people were going to events at that time that had access to great lists. There just weren’t very many resources available to people who were trying to play at the top level of the game, so most people were just playing what they could come up with to the best of their ability. If you didn’t play then, it might be hard to imagine, but basically imagine going to a Magic tournament with only a week lead in to the event in a new format. In reality, there was more time, but this actually pretty accurately captures about how much information everyone had going into events back then.

While I didn’t qualify during that season, something exciting did occur—I had published my list online, and someone else wrote to tell me that they had qualified with it in Germany. I can’t find the final full sideboard (just an early version), but here is the decklist for Black Ice, my B/W Pox list:

More than anything else this whetted my appetite for deckbuilding like nothing yet had. Not only was I doing well with this deck that was mine, but other people were playing it to success half the world away. I redoubled my efforts to play more Magic and to build decks.

It was around this time that I met Bob Maher, who was also a student at UW. He was easily the best player that any of us had encountered in town to that point, and he became a regular fixture at IHOP. His crew of players, Team ACD, was spread between Madison and Chicago, and they were easily the most talented group of players in the area, utterly dominating local events to such a degree that the rest of us organized into teams of our own with the hope of fighting back. For example, take the following excerpt from an old tournament report of mine from just a few years later:

There were 138 people vying for the two slots at this qualifier run by Barrett Moy in Iowa City. The tournament was run quite well. A grand total of nine teams made appearances at the PTQ:

Team Rogue
Team ACD
Team C&C
The Crew
Team JLA
Team Spud’s
Team Stupid
Team Gathering Ground

Team Cache

There are two things that I find mind blowing here in retrospect. One, two slots for 138 people. God, if only. I miss those days. Secondly, with only 138 people at that event, there were nine full organized teams of three to fifteen-plus. For example, Team ACD had their "A" team full of their very best Pro Tour veterans all playing the best deck and a "B" team full of ten to twenty hopefuls all supplied with decks that would beat the deck the A team was playing. If I recall correctly, about sixty players at that event were a part of an organized team brought together to try to succeed in that event.

We would learn that Bob wasn’t just the best player in town—he ended up being the best player that any of us would come to know for many years to come. This isn’t surprising. I still place him as the third-best player of all time, though many people put him in at number five. Wherever you place him, though, he was incredibly good. When I met him, he was a top member of Team ACD, and I hadn’t yet formed the Madison team that would try to take him on.

I met Brian Kowal at a PTQ in Chicago, where I lost my win-and-in match playing Green Machine, a mono-green control deck that would end up being fairly influential in later times. We had an awesome conversation about deckbuilding and Sligh. A week later I met him again in Minneapolis, where he just barely missed qualifying (by a single game!) playing Sligh, and our long-lasting deckbuilding partnership was born. Our team, Team Rogue, would start as Brian and Jim Hustad and me, but eventually we added other members, such as Dustin Stern.

None of us qualified for the Pro Tour that season, but things were underway. We all had a new "got there" feeling—it was the PT. Team ACD was taking up all of the slots in the area, but we were going to get there. We were going to qualify for the PT. Jim had done it already, but Brian and I were hungry.

Cabal Rogue & Real Life

The incredible difficulty in qualifying in a place so utterly dominated by an organized team combined with the memory of another player’s success with my Black Ice deck inspired me to do something—I decided to form a think tank.

I wrote to all of the people I could think of who were creating incredible decks or just thinking about Magic at a higher level. The idea was to bring on all sorts of creative thinkers together from different parts of the country and just help each other qualify by having better weapons than everyone else around us.

While the initial roster of Cabal Rogue isn’t something I’m clear on, here are our early members. You may not have heard of them all, but they were all people deeply influential in deckbuilding:

Mike Donais
Mike Flores
Rob Hahn
Jacob Janoska
Brian Kowal
Bill Macey
Sol Malka
Kevin McLaughlin
John Shuler
Craig Sivils
Adrian Sullivan
Jamie Wakefield
Andy Wolf

Eventually other people would become a part of Cabal Rogue (Ben Dempsey, Joel Priest, Nate Heiss, and others), but regardless we ended up contributing a lot of decks to Magic. Stompy, The Rock, Junk, Counter-Oath, Ponza, Five-Color Blue, Secret Force, Necro-Naught, Squandered Stasis—and that was just the early years.

The history of Cabal Rogue itself could take on a huge life of its own, but one thing was definitely true—we started qualifying like crazy. "Getting there" felt like a thing of the past. Now it was "staying there." This step involves trying to find success at the Pro Tour, but that, as you may realize, is pretty damned hard stuff.

Over the years for me personally, I found my need for competition completely stoked by the Pro Tour. I had some great successes but never the next level of success: the Pro Tour Top 8. Though I’d come really close (damn you, tiebreakers!), it eluded me.

In the middle of all of this Magic, I had gone through quite a journey in the rest of my life. I dropped out of school (twice!) and ended up moving to New York City to be the managing editor of Magic’s then-flagship website The Dojo. I did coverage work for Wizards of the Coast, I wrote articles for Scrye and Inquest, and I moved back to Madison, continuing to do freelance writing and editing in Magic for all kinds of websites, including StarCityGames.com

I wasn’t really doing anything all that great for a day job though. Magic was going fine, and I was racking up Pro Tour attendances and finding some minor success at Grand Prix. At a certain point, though, I realized I wasn’t doing enough in my day-to-day life that was making me happy.

I decided to go back to school.

A Simultaneous Rise & Fall

Going back to school was amazing. It did mean that I didn’t have the same kind of time that I once had for Magic, but it was great to be learning again.

Maybe it was my competitive spirit, but once I was immersed in school again and excited about what I was doing, I immediately jumped into grad school with the idea of getting a PhD and becoming a professor. Let’s go to the pinnacle, right? At a certain point after I received my Masters, I decided that I was done with grad school and hopped back into the real world, but still the personal growth of school was incredibly fulfilling both personally and professionally.

But while all of this was going on, I simply had far less time for Magic. At this point in my life, I’ve been to nineteen Pro Tours, but since grad school started, I haven’t requalified for the PT, though I’ve been very close an incredible number of times. At least I was able to help other people both qualify for the Pro Tour and prepare for the Pro Tour. I also was given the incredible opportunity by Evan Erwin to help start SCGLive; he’d seen my GGsLive coverage and told me he wanted to have StarCityGames.com start doing coverage for events with the kind of commentary I had done for GGsLive. Even though I’m not on SCGLive’s current roster, I’m very proud to have been a part of kicking it off.

Combining real life and Magic life is hard. Realistically, trying to qualify and succeed on the Pro Tour is hard. But trying to do that while maintaining your grades in grad school and maintaining a full and happy social life is practically impossible. Or at least it was for me.

Even though I’ve fallen off of the Pro Tour, I utterly loved where I’ve gotten my life now that I’m out of school. Bob Maher, now the owner of ACD Distribution and one-time sponsor of old Magic team Team ACD, brought me on board to a job that I love. As I’ve settled in, I’ve gotten to play more and more Magic. And that’s certainly been exciting.


It’s been a fight to try to get back. A part of it is that qualifying is so incredibly hard these days. People are more prepared than ever. Everyone comes to the table armed to the teeth with great decks it seems.

“Getting there” has again become getting back on the Pro Tour. But it’s a different world these days. Even though I’m still making great decks (at one PTQ, I had two decks in the room, and we finished first place and second place—of course, I was the one who lost that final), as I mentioned great decks is the norm these days.

Still, though, I keep pushing, playing the best decks that I can, whether they’re decks of my own design or decks designed by people that I respect. It’s been nice being at a workplace where the boss says to me, "Oh, it’s a PTQ? Go do it." I’ve had so many close calls and so many minor victories, but not the slot. Getting close to winning a WMCQ was hard, but not as hard as losing the critical GP round in the second-to-last match or losing in the finals (twice!) in 2013.

Most recently, to help kick off 2014 I played in a PTQ in Madison with U/W Control, a deck I’ve been honing for a while. I lost in the finals* after playing nine rounds of Swiss with no losses. At the end of the day, my full record sounds great (9-1-2), but that one loss came when it most hurts.

It hurt. But I’m a fighter. I’m not planning on giving up. Getting back on the Pro Tour is the goal, and I’m going to get there. And after I do, then it will be just the beginning of the next climb for the next-highest goal.

Wish me luck.

Until next week,

Adrian L. Sullivan

@AdrianLSullivan on Twitter

*Here is the deck that won the PTQ in Madison at Misty Mountain Games. Thanks to Ben Rislove for supplying it!

The finals between me and Andrew was pretty heartbreaking. He won game 1 on the singleton Cyclonic Rift just as I was about to grab control. Game 2 he took handily, largely because I wasn’t prepared for him to board so heavily against U/W Control and I very likely misboarded.

I highly recommend this U/W Control list to anyone that is an aficionado of control. I’ve been playing it like crazy, and I feel like it’s just the best option in a Mono-Black Devotion based metagame.

The big question marks for most people in this list are the singletons in the main and board. In my experience, playing a card-draw heavy U/W Control deck with Elixir of Immortality greatly rewards the access to singletons. Having a single copy of a card means that you’re opening up access to a potentially very powerful effect that’s very reasonable to have come up not just once but more than once.

Disperse is the most questioned card in the list, but literally (literally-literally, not figuratively-literally) every time I cast it, my opponent was unhappy to see the spell cast. The most common use I had for it was resetting my Detention Sphere, nearly always on a card that was already under a Sphere, but I also used it as a near Boomerang in every way you can picture, saving my would-be dying permanents (particularly planeswalkers), Unsummoning Dragons, or just generally nixing my opponents’ plans. I don’t recommend a second copy, but the first is just so powerful.

There is only one PTQ weekend left to play this deck before Born of the Gods is here. If I were to recommend any single deck, it would be this one.