Ground Seal Day

“So close, and yet so far.” No one really likes coming in ninth place at a major tournament, but Brian Braun-Duin looks straight on at the reasons he found himself at the Edge of the Top Eight at #SCGDC.

November 11th, 2014. 1:37 AM

I walked alone through the woods. It was a few days before Grand Prix New Jersey and I needed some quiet time to think. If I bricked off in this event, I was going to be off the Pro Tour for a while–maybe forever. This was my chance to make it. This was my chance to make a name for myself, to cement myself as a fixture in the Pro Tour circuit. This was it.

I could hear the wind rustling through the trees and animals howling off in the distance. The only other audible sound was my light breathing and the cracking of dead leaves underneath my footsteps. The forest was serene and beautiful, but my mind was lost in thought elsewhere. “What should I play this weekend? What deck gives me the best chance to win?”

Suddenly I heard a calm, steady voice behind me.

“You should play Treasure Cruise. Seriously. Is that even a question? Gitaxian Probes and Treasure Cruises. Easiest decision ever.”

I could feel my heart beating in my chest. Who was this? How did he sneak up on me without me hearing? How did he know what I was thinking? What was his rationale on Treasure Cruise versus Dig Through Time? A million thoughts flooded through my mind as I quickly turned around to look at the imposter.

What I saw was a short, pudgy man with a nice friendly smile.

“Hi, I’m Kotho…” he began.

“You’re Kothophed? Like the Demon from the Liliana story?” I interrupted.

“No. You didn’t let me finish. I’m Kotho-fed up with everyone confusing me for Kothophed. Seriously. Screw that guy. He’s part of one origin story and suddenly nobody cares about any of the other canonical Demons. Even Griselbrand is feeling the heat. I’m Timmy. You hear that? Timmy. And I’m proud of it.”

“Seriously? Timmy? That doesn’t inspire either fear or admiration. Your parents must not have loved you.”

“Well, they were demons.”


“Anyway, I am here to offer you a deal. You’ll win Grand Prix New Jersey, but it comes at a price. My price is simple. For one calendar year, you will owe me. You’ll owe me nine ninths.”

“Nine Ninths? That’s not even a proper fraction. I typically just refer to nine ninths by its common English name: one. Nine ninths of what? A dollar? I think I have one on me. You’re on. We have a deal.”

“Excellent. Have fun on the bubble.” With that, Timmy let out a mwahahahahaha style evil laugh that was not at all scary sounding before he abruptly disappeared in a puff of smoke.

“I don’t know what this bubble business is all about, but it sounds fun!” With that, I walked home with thoughts of Treasure Cruise and Gitaxian Probe in my mind. I had a nagging feeling that I had missed something, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. Oh well, probably nothing important…

Saturday, August 8th, 2015. 8:02 AM

Bzzt. Bzzt. Bzzt. Bzzt.

I hit the snooze button on my phone alarm for the fourth time in twenty minutes. Internally I debated whether to actually get up or to snooze it baby one more time. I decided this was the time I finally motivated myself to arise. I got up and checked my deck box one more time. I had already checked it twice the night before, but I am paranoid about arriving to a tournament missing cards or forgetting them altogether.

Everything checked out. This is the list I registered.

The last time I was in DC for an SCG Open was earlier in the year. I played B/G Constellation in Standard and finished ninth. I was so close to the Top Eight in that tournament, but I just couldn’t quite get there. This tournament was going to be different. This tournament was Legacy.

I love Legacy. Legacy is my favorite format. There’s just something about it that no other format provides. In Legacy, I feel in control. I feel that when I lose, I probably did something wrong. Most of the time, I did. That’s not to say that I didn’t do something wrong when I win, because it’s rare that I complete a game of Legacy where I did not make multiple mistakes. It’s just more noticeable when I lose because my mind immediately thinks back on the game to figure out what went wrong.

I don’t find the same true for other formats nearly as much. That’s not to say that they are bad formats, or that I don’t enjoy playing them, just that I don’t have nearly the same amount of great games in those formats.

More than that, I also love Miracles. I’m going to make a statement that very few people are going to agree with. Miracles is a fun deck. Miracles is like playing chess. I love the thrill of trying to sequence my spells in such a way to shut down every avenue my opponent is trying to beat me on. I love the thrill of getting inside my opponent’s mind and their deck and figuring out exactly what their plan for winning is… and then crush that plan into the ground.

Every game feels like a puzzle, and I love trying to solve that puzzle. To be successful with Miracles you have to not only play around what your opponent is doing, you also have to play around what your opponent will be doing. Miracles played properly is the best deck in the format, and every time I miss Top Eight with Miracles the conclusion I generally draw is that I simply didn’t play it well enough to make Top Eight. It’s refreshing to have your fate in your own hands.

As for the list I played, I have now played something just a few cards off from this list in the last three or four tournaments I’ve played. I really like this list a lot and recommend it. I would probably change the Ethersworn Canonist in the sideboard for something that is great against Infect. While Storm was relatively popular at the event, so was Infect, and Storm is a great matchup whereas Infect is a really poor matchup. You don’t need the card to beat Storm, but you can definitely use as much help as you can get against Infect.

One question I’ve been asked a lot is whether to play this version or to play the Mentor Miracles version that won at GP Lille. Personally, I think this version is a lot stronger. While the Mentor version can give you much more explosive games, the issue I have with it is that you are overall a lot weaker in a variety of matchups.

For one, you’re turning on opposing removal spells in game one. While that may not matter as much against some removal spells, it can be really awkward against cards like Abrupt Decay that you can’t just lock out with a Counterbalance.

There are also a lot of matchups where you need access to other cards to win. There are some matchups where it’s really hard to be able to beat them with Mentor and you’ll want a Jace that can tick up to ultimate for the win instead. Likewise, in some really hard matchups, being able to survive long enough to miracle a big Entreat the Angels to one-shot them might be the only real avenue to victory.

Even more than that, cards like Jace are just really powerful cards that are going to give you a lot of game in fair matchups. Against decks like Death and Taxes or any kind of Sultai deck, Jace is going to be one of the cards you’re relying on to win the game. Entreat the Angels is the same way. While Jace might not actually be the card that physically wins the game, it’s the card that’s going to provide you with the kind of lasting card advantage that will prevent your opponent from crawling back and beating you.

Daze is also just not the kind of Magic card I want to play in a deck like Miracles. Miracles is a deck that aims to win the long game against a lot of different decks. Daze is a card that gets worse and worse the longer the game drags on. Even with Mentor in the deck to increase the clock of the deck, you’re still playing cards like Terminus that will reset the board. My philosophy on Miracles is to stick to playing cards that are going to be good at any point of the game you draw them. It seems weird to play a card that gets worse and worse as the game progresses in a deck that’s looking to progress the game longer and longer versus a lot of decks.

I also think that playing a Phillip Schoenegger style Ponder list is the best way to play Miracles. I know a lot of prominent Miracles players haven’t (yet) adopted playing Ponder, but I am confident that it is a mistake not to. I’ve played many different styles of Miracles decks over the past two years and the difference between playing a Ponder list versus a list without Ponder is so enormous that I couldn’t ever imagine going back to playing without it.

Ponder does so much to control your draw steps, which is the single most important thing in Miracles. Cards like Terminus and Entreat the Angels that are often very clunky cards become immensely better when you have Ponder to help set up these Miracles and that also help you dig deeper to find cards like Brainstorm or Jace, the Mind Sculptor that can put Miracles back on top of your deck when they end up in your hand.

Ponder also allows you to play Snapcaster Mage and have enough reasonable spells to flash back with it. Snapcaster Mage is a card that has historically been very poor in Miracles because you’re relying on cards like Terminus, Entreat the Angels, Jace, Counterbalance, and Sensei’s Divining Top as integral parts of your plan and none of those play well with Snapcaster Mage. With Ponder in the deck, you now have Ponder, Brainstorm, and Swords to Plowshares as cheap spells to rebuy, which is enough to make a few copies of Snapcaster worth it.

Lastly, Ponder helps fuel Dig Through Time, which is a card that has an enormously high power level. To be completely honest it is probably at its worst in Miracles, and yet it is still really good. Even though Dig is better-positioned in a deck like Omni-Tell, it’s still a powerhouse here. Sometimes you’re going to look at a Dig of three lands, a couple of miracles and a few Sensei’s Divining Tops, which is fairly unexciting. For each of those humdrum experiences, there are also going to be Digs where it single-handedly wins the game by finding exactly the cards you need. Playing against a creature strategy? How about a Swords to Plowshares and a Snapcaster Mage! Thanks for playing.

All things told, I really like Miracles as an archetype, I really like this specific build of Miracles, and I really like Legacy as a format. Tie it all together and I was looking forward to this SCG Open more than most tournaments.

Saturday, August 8th, 2015. 10:16 AM.

Pairings had just gone up for round one. I’ve done this a hundred times. Literally. I’ve played in over 100 Open Series events. To say I am a veteran of the Open Series would be an understatement. It’s likely that I’ve played more matches on the Open Series than any other competitor.

Despite that, I was nervous. I tried to convince myself that it was just another match, but I was failing at it. I sat down and shuffled up. I took a look at my opening hand. It was a mixture of lands and spells, but not good ones. I can’t remember exactly what they were, but I just knew I couldn’t keep it in good conscience. I’m off to a bad start. Down to six cards. I keep an unexciting six.

My opponent is playing Storm. My hand is poor against Storm. Somehow, he doesn’t have what it takes to kill me turn after turn and Jace, the Mind Sculptor takes over the game. I win a game one that I never thought I would win. Game two goes much easier and I can start to breathe easy when I advance to 1-0.

After the first round, my nerves settle and the tournament progresses smoothly. I start out 4-0.

Then I get paired against Infect on camera. I end up losing a close game three where I feel like I should have won given the cards I had. I’m not sure where I messed up, but I know that I did somehow.

The next round I play against a G/B deck that I’ve played against on Magic Online in the past. The deck is designed to prey on blue decks, Miracles in particular, thanks to Chalice of the Void, Choke, and Trinisphere in the maindeck. I knew I was in for a long tournament when my opponent played a Choke on turn two in game one. I had the Force of Will, but two turns later my opponent was able to use an Ancient Tomb and a Deathrite Shaman to provide enough mana to cast Eternal Witness to get back Choke and then Choke me again.

Game two didn’t go any better, and suddenly I was 4-2 and feeling pressure. I was going to need to rattle off some wins to make it into Day Two. I could feel some slight butterflies starting up again in my stomach.

Thankfully the next three round went according to plan. I was even able to slay Metalworker in the final round, a notoriously poor matchup for Miracles. Monastery Mentor was the MVP in that match. Every turn I was able to use Sensei’s Divining Top to draw a card and put the Top back on top of my deck in my upkeep and then draw the Sensei’s Divining Top for turn. That allowed me to create a Monk and provide a +1/+1 boost to my team each turn, letting me power through a Trinisphere to kill my opponent.

That interaction ended up providing useful a number of rounds, including being able to beat a Choke out of Lands with a Mentor and a basic Plains by allowing me to just cast a Sensei’s Divining Top every turn until my opponent succumbed. Sometimes it’s nice to know that every turn you’re going to draw Glorious Anthem and a 1/1 token.

I ended Day One at 7-2. It wasn’t the best record, but it was a good enough record to give me strong odds to Top Eight on Sunday. I went to bed early Saturday night. When you’re an old man like me, you need all the rest you can get.

Sunday, August 9th, 2015. 6:43 AM.

I woke up early Sunday morning. Normally I never wake up before my alarm goes off, but tournament weekends are the exception. When I’m excited to play some Magic, well, my body knows and wakes me up to do exactly that.

I could tell today was special. I had the fire, the desire, the right deck, and I was on my game.

Round after round I slayed one opponent after the other. In round fifteen I was able to draw into Top Eight and three rounds later I had won my first SCG Open. It all felt like a blur. My emotions were a mixture of relief and happiness. My thoughts were a combination of satisfaction and determination to use this SCG Open win to fuel a run at the Players’ Championship at the end of the year.

I drove home from the Open that night, and immediately passed out in my bed. Thrilled as I was from winning, it had still been a long weekend, and I needed my beauty sleep.

Sunday, August 9th, 2015. 7:13 AM.

I woke up with a grin on my face. It was just yesterday that I had won an SCG Open, my first such win. I grabbed my phone and opened up Facebook and Twitter. Weird, I didn’t have any notifications. I thought I probably would have gotten a few congratulations, but none were to be found.

I checked my messages. A few of my friends were wishing me good luck for Day Two. Wow, how out of touch could they be? That was a full day ago. Surely they were trolling me.

I rolled over in my bed… wait a second. This wasn’t my bed. I was sleeping on a couch. This wasn’t my house. Where was I?

I immediately panicked. My mind was racing and confused. I ran to the bathroom and splashed some water on my face. I looked normal. A little sleepy, but otherwise normal. I stepped out of the bathroom and realized that I was still tightly clutching my phone.

I hit the button and the screen lit up. I carefully read the words on the screen.

7:19 AM. Sun, Aug 9.

This had to be a mistake. This had to be some kind of joke. I could hear a shower running in the background. A voice called out to me. “You almost ready to leave? We’re leaving at 7:45. Day Two starts at nine.” I was too dazed to figure out who it was.

I went through the motions of the day. I didn’t bother to mention it to anyone. Nobody would get it or believe me anyway. I would figure this out on my own. I could tell my play wasn’t there. I was making a number of careless mistakes. I went 3-3 and missed cashing.

That night I drove home somberly. I got into my bed, mentally steeling myself to pretend it never happened when I woke up the next day. I was still under the impression that this had to be some sort of dream.

Sunday, August 9th. 7:03 AM.

The sun peeking through the blinds woke me up. I checked my surroundings. I was on a couch, not my own bed. I checked my phone. 7:04 AM. Sun, Aug 9.

What was happening to me? Once was an anomaly. This was starting to be a pattern.

I went through the motions again. 3-3 again. Missed cash, again. I drove home leadenly. I was dazed and confused. I plopped into my bed, defeated. I tried to stay awake, but exhaustion overwhelmed me.

Sunday, August 9th. 7:03 AM.

The sun peeking through the blinds woke me up. I was on a couch. My phone said Sunday, August 9th. A shower was running in the background.

Here we go again.

I played Day Two of the SCG Open in DC 716 times. I finished in first place 26 times. I had finished in 27 unique positions in the Top 32. I missed cash over 200 times. Nearly every Day Two competitor had made Top Eight at least once. I knew the contents of each of their decks, card for card. If you think this gave me an unfair advantage, well. It did. It certainly helped contributing to me winning the tournament over and over again.

None of it mattered. Every day would go the same way. Every day I would wake up on the same couch and my phone would tell me that today was Sunday, August 9th.

I got disqualified from the tournament three times. Once for drawing a fifteen-card opening hand, declaring it a “snap keep” and then refusing to admit I had more than seven cards in hand. Once, I got disqualified for destroying the feature match area and declaring it a “casualty of war.”

I also got disqualified for lying to a judge. In a weird twist of fate, I was actually telling the truth. Regardless, the judge didn’t like my continual insistence that the pairing software was broken as I had already played against my opponent 31 previous times. I refused to play the game and refused to budge on my position. Eventually they kicked me out of the tournament.

Ten times I skipped the tournament. I was “sick” seven times, and three times I just said “screw it” and visited museums in DC.

It didn’t matter. Nothing did. Day after day I woke up on Sunday, August 9th. I didn’t know how to break the chain, or if I even could.

This day I ended up going 4-1-1. I had gone that record six times prior. Twice it was good enough for Top Eight. Twice I finished in tenth place, and once in eleventh.

People approached me and asked me if I was going to Top Eight. They all seemed so excited by the prospect, but at this point it was all meaningless to me. I responded, mechanically, that it looked like I would probably finish ninth or tenth.

The final standings came out. I got ninth place. I could check that off my list. Now I’ve finished in 28 unique positions within the Top 32.

I drove home, got into my bed, and went to sleep. My bed was a lot more comfortable than that damned couch, but I knew it wasn’t going to be where I woke up.

Monday, August 10th. 9:44 AM.

I woke up in my bed. It felt great to get a good night’s sleep after a long tournament weekend. I thought about the prior day. I had gotten ninth place in the tournament. That was the fifth time I had gotten ninth this year. What a coincidence. One of these days I’ll end up cracking through into the Top Eight. For now, I had to be satisfied with another Top 16 finish. It wasn’t a bad finish by any stretch, but it wasn’t exactly what I had wanted.

They say consistency is key, but sometimes you want a little more than a consistent near miss.

I thought back on the day. I had gone 4-1-1, but my loss seemed preventable. In game three against Infect, I made a value play that gave my opponent a small glimmer of hope to win. He had all the cards he needed and converted that glimmer of hope into a signed match slip.

I let that game slip away, and with it, my chance of Top Eight. When I thought back on my tournament, I was happy with how I had played, for the most part. I had lost three times, and two of those were to Infect. Infect is a bad matchup, but yet I still felt like I had good chances to win both of those matchups and that I surely messed up to lose. I played well, but not well enough.

I felt like ninth place was a deserving finish for my play. A few tighter decisions and I might have made Top Eight, maybe even went on to win the tournament. But I didn’t make those tighter decisions, and I was forced to accept ninth for my efforts. I was a little disappointed, but at the same time I could only feel a sense of justice that I got the place I deserved. I didn’t play well enough for Top Eight, and I didn’t make Top Eight.

There’s a sense of satisfaction in controlling your own fate and knowing that you could have won the tournament if you had just played better. I was happy to know that my ninth-place finish rested solely in my own hands. I was in control of my destiny, and I didn’t take advantage of my opportunity.

There would always be more tournaments. I could only hope that the next time, I ended up making the Top Eight and not just finishing in another ninth place. I mean, realistically, how many times could I honestly get ninth in a calendar year?

I looked out the window of my room. My new neighbor was standing outside mowing his yard. He was a short, pudgy man. I couldn’t exactly remember his name. Was it Tommy? He looked up at me and waved and then let out a hearty laugh. I couldn’t figure out what was so funny, but I didn’t care much either to find out. I waved back, closed my blinds, and went on with my day. There was another tournament to prepare for. There was another Top Eight for me to try to etch my name into…