I never expected to attend any major Magic events. I’ve posted my fair share of 3-4 finishes, so it seemed ridiculous to shell out the extra expense of travelling just to embarrass myself. I get enough of that at my house. But then the best player on our team, Nick Page, got himself a bye on rating, and resident Level 2 Judge Duncan McGregor played in a Trial for some reason and stole the show. Suddenly Team Comf was going to hit the road.
I went into the GP weekend with high expectations. My DCI rating covered up whatever skills I may possess, giving me access to the all-too-sweet under-1700 prizes. In fact, I unsuccessfully lobbied for a name change to "Team Deceptively Good." However, in all but name, we’re definitely Team Apathy. I’m amazed we managed to get everything together. If they brought the GP to our living room, there would still be a chance none of us would show up.
A stroke of luck saw me with eleven sealed deck sets at my disposal. This meant that the week prior to departure was spent with my teammates constructing and deconstructing those beasts until they were completely gummed up with table grime. Some of them were pretty uninteresting – the one with Dromar and Armored Guardian, for instance – but there were plenty of decks with more than one viable build.
Needless to say there were tons of dialogues about how to approach your card pool, and what cards were worth splashing, and when, if ever, you should go for a five-colour-special. It got to the point where we’d be out at a diner for all-day breakfast and someone would have to give #7 another try.
I think it opened our eyes a fair bit. Plus, it’s all too easy to underestimate the value of actually playing the game before a limited event.
Not only does it get you warmed up for the task ahead, but it also shows you common game states, and how they resolve based on your decisions. This leads to a much more relaxed playing attitude, which is invaluable come crunch time.
For the most part, the best builds seemed to be Red/Black/Blue, and I don’t think it’s hard to see why. When I build my sealed deck, I strip off the absolute bombs, like dragons, then take the cards from each colour that would make me want to play it. This gives me an idea of where my most powerful cards are. More often than not, this means looking for removal. The only thing that could get me excited about green was a strong creature base; I rarely found it.
Nevertheless, one of the best pieces of advice I’ve been given about sealed deck is to shelve your gut instinct, if only for five minutes. Oftentimes I’ll have a good idea of where a deck is going as soon as I’ve laid out the cards, and that can blind me to alternate ways of building the deck. To combat this, I force myself to create several deck skeletons. This helps point out strengths where I may have missed them. Also, it only takes a few minutes, so it won’t leave me pressed for time in construction.
When put like that, the sum total of our playtesting looks pretty meager. At the time, though, we were too busy immersing ourselves in the format to notice.
Outside of Magic, the rest of the week was par for the course. Triple Yahtzee until the wee hours of the morning, old-school arcade games (coupled with fond remembrance of my wasted youth), new-school arcade games based on Fist of the North Star, and a few rousing rounds of "Fleece the Rube," my favorite source of income.
There were, of course, the usual complications with our road trip: back-outs, back-ins, "What do you mean we don’t have a car?", "The sixth man stays at home.", "The sixth man rides in the trunk," "The sixth man rides with Gary Wise," and the always entertaining "Well, it’s too late to sleep now."
I regained consciousness in an underground tunnel to the United States. With me were a slightly crushed Adam Hurd and Nick Page, as well as Duncan McGregor and Albert Lee riding high in the front seat. We escaped customs without having our cold cuts confiscated and proceeded to Detroit.
Personally, I found Detroit a little unnerving. Far too much bulletproof glass. That stuff doesn’t go up without a reason, you know. Never mind that Canadian currency is in the crapper right now, so everything was pretty expensive.
We eventually get to the tournament site and I put my shmooze on. Normally I hate talking to people, but I’ve met a lot of real fabulous folks from the Magic Community and I’d hate to miss meeting more just because I’m a jerk.
At this point, Adam finds out that PES are expecting only eighty or so people for their Trial, and since I wasn’t planning on sleeping anyways I join in the fun. It turns out that PES had estimated by just thinking of a number. 127 people register to play. This translated into nine, count ’em, nine rounds of Swiss starting at seven p.m., with the top four earning three byes apiece.
Cursing over my breath, I sat down to build.
Just before departure, Old Man Drew gave me a bunch of foreign coins to use as counters, and among them I found a Hong Kong five-dollar coin. It was about the size of a fifty-cent piece, but twice as thick. Fortunately, I opened a card fat enough to drop it on.
1x Phyrexian Scuta (The coin even has a huge 5 written on it!)
1x Plague Spitter
1x Ravenous Rats
1x Shivan Zombie
1x Lava Zombie
1x Vicious Kavu
1x Viashino Grappler
1x Thunderscape Apprentice
1x Thunderscape Familiar
1x Caldera Kavu
1x Kavu Aggressor
1x Cavern Harpy
It was everything short of Magma Burst and Terminate. Turn 3 Scuta? Don’t mind if I do. Five Dollars! Get outta here. The only real questionable call in my mind was Cavern Harpy. With only five black creatures to gate it in, and one of those being Lava Zombie, it was a real possibility that it would just get stuck in my hand, unlike the Morgue Toad Beatdown Machine. Plus, the Toad would give me another way to get blue for an emergency Probe, Recoil, or Confound. In the same way, the Sulfur Vent was incredible. Blowing it for Confound or Probe was still Boss. That, and having to splash only four cards made the mana work incredibly well.
For those of you who don’t know, Boss Coffee Plus One, Plus One: "Boss" is the boss of them all since 1991.
I figured that the Spitter was powerful enough to play even though it killed five of my guys. I planned to swap it for the Toad if my opponent didn’t show any x/1’s first game. The Serpent came in against blue, usually for the Familiar, or the Harpy if they showed no air force. The Kavu came in against R/G/B, a combination I figured was at least possible.
At the start of Round 1, the speakers boomed out a Feature Match that could only mean that Jeff Donais had messed with the DCI Reporter: Myself v. John "Friggin’" Rizzo.
Now, here’s a writer I owe at least a paragraph’s worth of Man Love. For a long time, I couldn’t give him the time of day, thinking him a gimmicky writer who would eventually pass like so many before him. Then he started writing about the things he cared about, and all that changed. He was suddenly a vibrant and passionate writer who was a real pleasure to read. Naturally, I set out to destroy him. At last I had my chance.
Game 1 went my way, despite losing my Mourning when Rizzo blew his Toad for blue mana. I was pretty safe, sitting on Sulfur Vent and Confound, so I was fine with trading dudes and winning the long game. The real brutality came when Rizzo kicked up a Vodalian Serpent, saying "Agonizing Demise with kicker?" I almost felt bad showing it to him, never mind that his sea monster had been holding back my Hong Kong Five Dollar Kung Fu Ninja.
Game 2 was another slobberknocker, even though I erred early. Rizzo had some thug on board and I had Shivan Zombie. Wanting to trade, I foolishly attacked. Of course Rizzo let it by and made me pay with Sleeper’s Robe. Fortunately, my deck hadn’t realised I’m a chowderhead yet, and so kept offering up the goods, including Reckless Spite to clear the field, then Scuta to bury my worthy opponent.
1-0 (Games 2-0)
I’m misquoted in the Sideboard’s coverage. When Rizzo went through my deck to see the goodness therein and couldn’t believe my fortune, I said, "That’s why they call it Sealed Luck," not the oh-so cryptic, "That’s why they call it Sealed Deck." I don’t even know what that could mean.
Somewhere around here Jeff Donais showed me to his two very young nieces, and they ran away screaming. Feel free to make your own jokes.
Round 2 I’m paired against Glen Wallace. After he recovered from an early mana stall in Game 1, I found he was playing G/R/b. Still, he managed to wipe out my force, and even kept my Cavern Harpy in hand with Frenzied Tilling on my only Island. However his draws after parity were Mountain, Fertile Ground, Meteor Crater, and I drew a creature.
In Game 2 my Plague Spitter worked overtime, killing an Apprentice before trading with another of his creatures. We swapped hits for a pair of turns, then I dropped Scuta M’Buta, falling to eight. He had Exotic Curse to minimise the beats, but it looked like I was winning the race. I destroyed the last of his creatures at one life, and was set to stop his breathing on my next attack phase. He peeled Magma Burst like it wasn’t the only card that would win him the game.
What makes things worse is I had missed an attack with my Spitter early on (Kavu Aggressor cannot block, you say?) that would have won me the game. Live and learn; do I really have to do both?
I mulliganed to start Game 3, feeling really stupid. My six-card hand was three land and three dudes, so I was off to the races. I put him on defense early, then kicked up Doctor Scuta. I traded it for his creature and burn spell on his next attack, and the resource advantage was too much for him. I dispatched him in short order.
2-0 (Games 4-1)
Rounds 3 and 4 have disappeared from memory, and my notes are no help. All I can tell you is that I played Ben Schwab and Enric Rodanilas and won three of the four games to my opponent’s mana screw. The sole interesting game against Schwab involved Plague Spitter ruling the board and stranding three x/1’s in hand. Enric ended up earning byes, with a record of 7-1-1.
4-0 (Games 8-1)
Round 5 I played Steve Glowacki and quickly learned why he was 4-0: Tahngarth, Talruum Hero. Forget that I mulliganed; as soon as that Legend hit the table, my game was over. It took a total of seven minutes. Fortunately for me, Tahngarth was absent from Game 2, so I was able to smack Steve around. His B/R/u deck had lots of black removal that he couldn’t play on my men, and plenty of red creatures I could banish.
I won Game 3 at nine life, and Steve only hit me for three. Reckless Spite smashed his Kavu Aggressor and Tahngarth before things got out of hand, and then I kicked up a Scuta that his burn couldn’t quite handle.
5-0 (Games 10-2)
At this point, Adam and Albert have each acquired two losses and decide to head back to the hotel for sleep. I have a sandwich and tell myself that I only need two more wins to clinch the byes. 7-0 should be able to draw in, even if I lose my eighth round.
Well, I did it. I’m not entirely sure how, but I beat both Craig Guile and David Weitz. More than that, I swept them. And I mulliganed every game. If anything, this taught me the value of mulliganing. I’m also sure that I got very good draws against Weitz; I also missed an attack on him. It’s hard to feel good about winning when you’re busy sabotaging yourself. Dave took it like a gentleman.
7-0 (Games 14-2)
I ran around to tell anyone who’d listen about how I was the only undefeated player in the Trial and could draw into some byes. It was high-fives six ways to Sunday. I tried to calm myself down with some Slowdive, but it wasn’t happening. I put a disc of beats in my player and rocked out.
I didn’t really care as I sat down across from Olwen Wee for Round 8, and I probably should have. I mulliganed, and I still didn’t care, so flush was I with my supposed victory. Again, my deck yielded a six-card hand so good it looked like seven. Olwen played turn-two Nightscape Familiar, and that knocked me out of my reverie. I double-checked my hand and confirmed that I had neither Strafe nor Zap. I then took a moment to reflect on how good that card was against me. It was pretty good.
Eventually I caught him tapped out and burned the walking disaster. This made a path for my Phyrexian Scuta, the only creature of mine he didn’t destroy. Successive hits drop him to five before he draws his Rushing River. I, too, am at five, and replayed my Scuta without its coin. He showed me the error of my ways with Flametongue Kavu. I lost in two turns.
Game 2 would have been the worst, if I hadn’t been so sure that I already had the byes: Olwen and I trade cards to a stable board. I Probe with Kicker, leaving him with one card, and me with the berries. He draws and plays a Mountain – his sixth land and only red – and casts Crosis, the Purger.
7-1 (Games 14-4)
Still, no problem, right? I’m gonna draw ALL the way in.
Two things got in the way of that fantasy. First, there was an unintentional draw that gummed up the works. Second, my opponent was Adam Fischer, whose tiebreakers were so low that it seemed like he couldn’t have played eight rounds. I felt bad about having to end his dreams, but them’s the breaks.
I mulliganed in Game 1. I made some dudes, but they got outclassed after hitting by his Magnigoth Treefolk. However, he couldn’t make a move either, so when I dropped the Plague Spitter at ten life to his six, I was feeling pretty good about things. Two turns later I was given a Reckless Spite, which sealed the deal.
And now I feel unstoppable. It’s not just that Adam’s playing a fairly slow G/R/b, so my three-drops should be able to take the day for me. I’ve just won my sixth game in which I’ve mulliganed and my opponent hasn’t. I’ve decided that this is my weekend.
This seemed validated in Game 2, when I kicked up my Scuta against an empty board for the umpteenth time. He took a hit, then chumped, and it was all I could do not to jump up on my chair and shout, "IT’S MINE! BY RIGHT OF WAR, I SEIZE THESE THREE BYES!"
I suppose it was a good thing I didn’t, and not just because his next play was Tsabo Tavoc. He might as well have gutpunched me. I had Exotic Curse, but had only two basic land types in play. I had been using my Sulfur Vent for all these black spells. The same Sulfur Vent that I thought made my mana perfect. If it had been a Swamp, he’d have been forced to chump with Tsabo, and I would have won on the next turn.
I drew the Swamp a turn later, but it was already far too late. He’d cast another creature to jump in front of my Scuta while I took four in the teeth. He played another, and I packed it up for Game 3.
Well, this was it. Last Day. The fiery ritual of Carousel. Perhaps I’d be renewed.
7-2 (Games 15-6)
There is no Sanctuary.
I’d just finished penning my piece on taking things in stride, and I think a lot of that was still in my system, because I wasn’t feeling too bad. Bad, yes, but not terrible. I tried to complain to Josh Ryder and he just flat out told me that I’d done a good job. Hard to feel bad with that much perspective.
In retrospect, I probably should have asked about a prize split. Fischer got two boxes, whereas I wound up with an awkward seventeen packs of Planeshift. However, I had some pretty serious tunnel vision going on, the result of my genius plan of sleeping only four hours the night before.
Nick Page sat up in bed as I entered the room. I flashed him a thumbs-down and collapsed. Lying down had never felt so good. The floor? Gimme that!
And then three hours later it was "Game On!"
2x Nightscape Familiar
1x Slingshot Goblin
1x Mire Kavu
1x Lava Zombie
1x Phyrexian Slayer
1x Kavu Aggressor
1x Plague Spitter
1x Halam Djinn
1x Nightscape Battlemage
1x Tower Drake
1x Vodalian Zombie
1x Ravenous Rats
And the card that was lost to time!
I wish I could blame this on lack of sleep.
I think it’s best if you avert your eyes. Needless to say, there were few matches where I didn’t swap the Sinister Strengths and a Rushing River for the three sideboard cards I have listed. The idea was that I’d play dudes for the first three or four turns, then spend the rest of the game returning my opponent’s crew and sending the beats.
The biggest obstacle to this being realised was my mana base. I spent a lot of time with red dudes in hand, forced to blow my bounce spells with no one home to help make them pay. I was still in the mindset that my trial deck had given me: Play dudes and remove blockers. Unfortunately, bounce is not removal. Even Do or Die was never more than a glorified Terror.
Worse is that I chose this build over a G/W/u deck that packed bombs like Sunscape Master and Questing Phelddagrif. My rationale? I could only muster twenty-one cards I liked. I definitely overthought myself. I was seeing a spectacular array of critters in B/R/U, and never wondered how hard it was going to be to get them into play.
With apologies to those omitted, I’m going to breeze through the actual Grand Prix. I swept my first two opponents, which included a Round 2 Feature Match (somehow overlooked by the coverage team) against Dave Bartholow. He handed me Game 1 by not using Cauldron Dance for the kill, and when he tried to do it in Game 2, I had the Rushing River.
2-0 (Games 4-0)
In Round 3 faced Jose Cintra, who can be seen menacing me in the photo coverage of Pro Tour: Tokyo. He was B/U/r also, but his bounce worked better against my creature enchantments than mine did against his ten lands. There’s not much tempo to be gained when your opponent can recast his whole team. In Game 1 I took twelve points I didn’t have to by not sacrificing my only Island to Rushing River when he had Vodalian Serpent. I don’t think it mattered. He smashed me.
I transformed for Game 2, but it was just as sad. His bounce hid in his deck and was replaced by targeted kill. I didn’t have a creature on the table at the end of the game.
2-1 (Games 4-2)
I played a similar pair of games against Francis Cormier in Round 4. He even had Nightscape Familiars to make my ground assault a ridiculous proposition. Without early pressure, my Rushing Rivers were a little silly. I got him to six both games, but couldn’t convert.
2-2 (Games 4-4)
Round 5 I faced Adam Nolastname. He mauled me first game after I mulliganed, but I was not worried. He was playing R/G/w, so I knew my Familiars and Sinister Strengths would take care of business. I ended Game 2 by kicking up a Demise on a creature he’d just Cloaked. He mulliganed Game 3, and never really got going.
3-2 (Games 6-5)
Rounds 6 and 7 have also been lost in the mists. I can tell you that I played Maxime Nolastname (no relation) and Josh Napper, and that I brawled them, but the details are gone. This is probably due in part to my staving off exhaustion with caffeine gum. Say what you will, but it does grant a strange sort of focus. For a while.
5-2 (Games 10-5)
Adam and Duncan were also at 5-2, so we dubbed ourselves Team Eron the Relentless, with ambitions of becoming Team Hungry Mist. The best Nick could hope for was Team Durkwood Boars. I couldn’t figure out who would get in, but Duncan told me that few 6-2’s would make the cut. I was still filled with hope, because another win would guarantee me $250 worth of under-1700-pie.
Standing in my way was someone known only as Alex. He came out of the gates quickly, but I forced a waiting game and dropped Plague Spitter. We both decided to play this game for quite a while, but he put a stop to it with a kicked Magma Burst, the wrong end aimed at my head. He swarmed for the win on his next turn.
Game 2 wasn’t even close, and I’m sad to say that it was my own fault. Apparently I ran out of good sense, because I kept a hand with Sulfur Vent, Swamp, and all blue spells. Short of landlessness, this is the clearest case for a mulligan. Without early plays I’m going to soak a lot of damage, and the only spells I can cast set me back a land, unless I’m fortunate enough to draw an Island.
Naturally, I don’t. There was a glimmer of hope when Alex stalled at two mana, but he drew like I thought I could to step all over me. Goodbye $250, thanks for the lesson.
The worst part was that Alex wasn’t flagged AND didn’t make Day 2. Adam Fischer didn’t capitalise on the byes he won, but it wasn’t all bad news. Both David Weitz and Craig Guile got into Day 2 the hard way. Guile even finished first among the under-1700’s, which is just awesome. I mean, I wish it was me, but since it’s not me, I’m glad it’s him.
I did get to do a little coverage on Day 2, and scammed a ride home with Gary Wise, Steve Wolfman and Josh Ryder. I even got to show them Invaders from Mars Pinball, featuring Robo-Lincoln! ("Go get ’em, Abe!")
All in all, I’m pretty happy with the experience. Even though my Trial deck was amazing enough to build itself, I feel I played it well and mulliganed aggressively, something I’ve been having trouble with. My play in the GP proper was questionable, but I’m more than willing to write that off to exhaustion. I ended up 12-5, which is the best record I’ve posted in a while, and had a great time.
The moral of the story is Peter Ustinov.