How I Won Nationals *1st*

The real Nationals champ steps forward to tell his story of triumph, choice, and high-level coverups.

I know what you’re thinking – you’ve read the Nationals coverage on Sideboard online, you thought Trevor Blackwell won Nationals. Don’t believe everything you see. Look closely at the coverage, and you’ll notice a few flaws that should give you hint that things aren’t completely kosher in Denmark. For instance, supposedly Head Judge Chris Zantides got deported to Australia and they had to find a replacement. C’mon! Who gets deported to Australia? Does this statement seem odd to anyone else? I saw Chris at Nationals, and the men in black that grabbed him and carried him off kicking and screaming in his red and black stripped shirt did not look like immigration officials.

Then there’s that rather strange interview with Randy Buehler, notably this part:

Randy Buehler: Spiritmonger isn’t even in the top ten constructed cards in the set, just because it doesn’t have evasion. It really wants to have trample.

Does anyone else find it unlikely that someone from Wizards R&D would actually suggest that Spirit Monger doesn’t have enough abilities to make it Constructed-worthy? Even a blind llama can see that this card is a beast, figuratively as well as literally. I can’t believe Randy would make such a bone-headed statement.

But enough with the Fox Mulder pose. Submitted for your consideration is my Nationals report, and I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.

I didn’t intend on going to Nationals. Having to try and qualify in the Grinders seems such an exercise in futility, and since I didn’t have any friends going I didn’t want to scrub out and then wander around, hoping someone would recognize me from my strange picture on Star City and hang out with me. Being married with an infant daughter didn’t help the cause out, either. But then Monday I got an email.

To: [email protected]

From: [email protected]

Subj: Mise Nats?

Yo, Bennie! Are you headed to Orlando to serve savage tings? I know you like to swing, and there’s no better time to smash tight and turn men sideways. Mise face infinite vicious team beatings and come on down. We’ll save some floor space for you.



Yup, it was from the Original Bad Player himself! Who was I to turn down an invite to be a Flores groupie? Scrubbing out didn’t sound like a bad time at all now.

After much groveling and trying to explain this to my wife (ultimately, it was the groveling that did it because I couldn’t really translate Mike’s email for her), she agreed if it didn’t hit our savings account too hard. I got together some cards to sell and hit the ATM for a few hundred, crossing my fingers that it wouldn’t get much more expensive.

So, after exchanging a few emails with Mike to find out what hotel he was staying in, I landed a train ticket from Richmond to Orlando for Wednesday. The trip was rather uneventful except for one thing; on my way to the latrine, I see a peculiar little bearded dude who looks awfully familiar. As I’m taking care of business, I realize who it was – Seth Burn! The guy who kicked my butt in the Writer’s War, even though he hadn’t written anything for like six months prior. I deliberately fail to wash my hands and walk up to him, working up an appropriately star-struck doe-eyed look. I stick said hand out to him.

“Aren’t you Pro Tour Player and Magic Writer Seth Burn?”

He puffs up and grins.”Yes I am.” He shakes my hand and my fake grin gets real.

“Love your writing. Are you headed to Nationals?”

“Is that this week?” He looks perplexed and a bit panicky. I head back to the latrine to actually wash my hands now. I’m not sure what Seth had going on, but he disappeared at some point as we traveled through South Carolina. I woke up from a nap and he was gone.

I get to Orlando at 10 p.m. Wednesday and take a taxi to the Renaissance Hotel. Like a dunce, I forgot to ask what room number Flores and Co are staying in, and of course the room isn’t registered in his name. I tick down the old Cabal Rogue member list and try John Shuler and Adrian Sullivan, but the receptionist shakes her head. Desperate, I ask her to check for Jamie Wakefield. The receptionist looks confused as she checks her computer screen, and informs me that there are 21 Jamie Wakefield registered there.

21? What, is it a Jamie Wakefield convention? Or did he leave his credit card behind at the last Pro Tour event he played at?

About that time I see Kyle Rose across the room, helping Matt Linde get up from a rather nasty spill he took. The poor kid actually fell out of his pants! I call out to them as I dash over. Kyle’s eyes get huge and he tenses up when he sees me, frantically looking around for an exit or officer of the law.

“Easy, big fella. I’m not here to ask you for tech.”

Kyle visibly relaxes after the disclaimer, and I ask him if he’s seen Flores. He hasn’t, so I ask him if I can toss my baggage in his room for a few hours while I try and find him. Kyle agrees only after insisting that I cannot actually go to the room, he’ll take my bags for me. Evidently Kyle’s room is Tech Central, and I pose too much of a security risk, being a writer and a scrub and all. Whatever.

I head over to the tournament area, where they’re holding the pre-tournament Magic Ballroom Dance. I see Kastle, Hammer and a few other guys tripping the night fantastic with some real hotties. Let me tell you that it’s no joke – Darwin really does know his ballroom dancing! Anyway, I search around for Flores and, despite a few lesbian folk singers I see hanging out against the wall without dance partners, he is no where to be found. I guess he missed out.

I figured if a New Yorker like Flores missed out on the dancing, he’d end up at a bar, so I head out to the closest one. The guy-to-girl ratio was way out of proportion, and the place smelled like a locker room, so I figured other Magic players had wandered in, too.

I grabbed a seat at the bar and scanned the place for anyone I recognize. I don’t have to look any farther than my elbow where I saw none other than –

“Mighty Mighty Michelle Bush!” I exclaimed.

She smiled sweetly at me and affirmed that, yes, she is indeed Mother Trix. I introduced myself, but the name doesn’t ring a bell with her. I tell her I write for Star City. She thinks a moment but shakes her head. Nothing. Damn, I guess I did get smoked in the Writer’s War! We exchanged a few pleasantries while she waited for her drink, and I ask her if she’d seen Flores or any ex-Cabal Roguers around. She tells me the only one she had seen was Sol Malka, but he’d left explicit instructions not to reveal his whereabouts to anyone scrubby. Hmph.”People’s Champion” indeed!

For the record, Michelle ordered a grande margarita with a shot of Cuervo Gold on the side – evidently the house margaritas are too pansy-ass for her. My kinda woman. However, her appetizer of alligator roe (evidently a Florida delicacy) made my stomach churn. Ugh!

Back at the hotel, I witnessed a huge game of Texas Hold ’em going on in the lobby. After observing for a while, I realized that these guys play poker to determine who goes first in their Magic matches for the weekend. Evidently, when two pro regulars square off they compare notes on how much money they won at poker before the event. The person with the higher total gets to choose whether to play or draw – no wonder a card shark like Kyle Rose has done so well at Magic! But by the look of his dwindling chips, though, it looked like his luck was running out. At some point he slipped away before I could ask him for my bags, so I slept in a janitor’s closet for the night. It wasn’t too bad in there, though Becky Hiebert’s coughing kept waking all of us up.


So I showed up for the first constructed Grinders tired, tousled and grumpy. Things were definitely not going the way I thought they would. But I had a deck I felt pretty confident with, so here is what I played:

Saber Ant Red

4x Seal of Fire

4x Assault/Battery

4x Pyroclasm

4x Flame Rift

4x Zap (cantrip!)

4x Stun (cantrip tech, baby!)

4x Rogue Kavu

4x Saber Ants

4x Scoria Cat

2x Avatar of Fury

4x Rishadan Port

4x Karplusan Forest

5x Forest

13x Mountain


4x Tectonic Instability

4x Squallmonger

4x Turf Wound

3x Hull Breach

I didn’t have my pen and paper with me, so I couldn’t take notes, but basically I swept through the rounds and ended up undefeated in all my matches. I only lost two games total. The deck was an absolute beating, knocking out Fires, Skies, CounterRebel, and some strange U/W/B monstrosity with Probes. Holy crap, I’m playing at Nationals! And there’s no one to share my victory with… I try and talk with Pete at the Star City, but he ignores me. Is he still pissed off at my Halfling crack two years ago?

I bump into Kyle again and tell him I’ve got to get my stuff from his room. Even though I insist I don’t need his damn tech, he won’t let me come up unblindfolded. I finally agree and get led through blind, though I managed to work the blindfold loose enough to see two Saber Ants on the bed. I smile, glad to see that others recognize the power of Saber Ants. I’m such a trailblazer.

At the receptionist desk I do my Flores dance again, and again have no luck. In a flash of inspiration, I ask if Sean McKeown is registered and get his room number. I head on up and work the door open with my ATM card. Sure enough, the place is empty and the bed hasn’t been touched. Shawn’s such a gigolo I’m sure he’ll be spending the night elsewhere. Ah, a real room at last! I stripped, showered, and shaved. I laid back on the bed in order to catch a little nap. The next thing I know it’s next morning so I hustled over to the tournament area, refreshed if a little fuzzyheaded.


As much as I hate having to go to Disneyworld for Nationals, I have to admit the tournament area looked quite impressive. I didn’t have a lot of time to sightsee however, so I checked in and found out I’m at Table 10 for the first draft pod. There are already a couple of guys at the table, including someone I recognize from back home – Lawrence Creech! I haven’t seen him since smoking his arse at Virginia States. I tell him his Texas Hold ’em game must have been doing pretty well, in light of his strong PT performance recently. He looks shocked that I’d know about that little secret. Heh, heh…

Another Virginia drawl”greets” me. It’s Pete Leiher from Charlottesville!”What are YOU doing here?” This must be the Virginia table! Though Pete’s smiling, he doesn’t sound all that happy to see me. Last time we played each other, I beat him in the Swiss and then beat him in the finals to win the 1999 VA State championship. Of course, Pete never sounds particularly happy except when he’s winning.

Oh, and guess who else is drafting at my table? Jon Finkel and Mike Turian! Boy, I have all the luck, don’t I? I do the best I can, though, and actually get a pretty good deck. Finkel and Turian get into a little scuffle during the draft and I end up with a decent red/green deck (though not as good as Pete’s red/green). I won’t go into the blow-by-blow for the draft portion of the tournament, because I don’t find it particularly enlightening to read, so I’ll just summarize. Things start out poorly for me in round 1 when Creech gets revenge by slapping me around with his brutal R/B deck. I managed to squeak out a win against a gentleman whose name I can’t remember, and then somehow beat Pete into the ground despite the fact that my R/G was basically drafted from the red and green cards he didn’t pick. Pete was none too pleased, to put it mildly. Don’t underestimate three Turf Wounds for ultimate tempo!

To escape that pod at 2-1 made me feel very fortunate, to say the least. For the next draft I’m at Table 11, and the only names I recognize are Jamie Parke and Eric Froehlich. I stick with red/green again in this draft, get a much better deck, and beat all three of my opponents. All I can say is that Pygmy Kavu is highly underrated when everyone else loves black so much. I somehow got four for my deck. I must have drawn twenty cards from Pygmy Kavus through the course of three matches!

Holy crap, I’m 5-1 going into day 2. I see I’m placed 16th overall, which seems a bit high but the head judge explains to me that the new software can calculate Texas Hold ’em win percentages now. Evidently, my opponents have won some serious poker cash over the past few days. Tiebreakers still baffle me.

At this point I finally see Mike Flores but he’s surrounded by a mass of young BP groupies, all babbling Florespeak and being generally impossible to comprehend. How do I break through to get his attention? Do I really want his attention?

Inspired, I walk up to the nearest BP’er and tell him I’m Jamie Wakefield and I need to speak with Mike.”Mize?” he asks me.”Ting,” I reply, and he leads me through the throng to him. Finally! Face to face with Mike Flores. He actually looks a lot more serious in person than he does in the movies.

“Mike, I Q’d for Nationals in the grinders and now I’m in 16th place!”

He looks at me blankly. I think for a moment, then try something else.

“BP, I laid tight smash and infinite mizes. Day 2 tings ensue!”

He grins and gives me a bear hug. A few seconds longer than men should hug. I’m about to break away when he whispers in my ear.”Who the hell are you?”

“Bennie. Bennie Smith. You sent me that email?” I try and translate it into Florespeak, but he still doesn’t understand. Seems that a) he has no idea who I am and b) he never sent me that email.

Damn. Somebody set me up! (The bomb – The Ferrett)

I try and hook up with some of the pro tour regulars to talk day 2 strategy and to see if I need to modify my Saber Ant Red deck any. However, everyone melted away to their secret tech rooms and I was left by myself, so I went back up to Shawn’s room. No one there either, though I wasn’t expecting anyone, nighttime being the right time and all.

I go over and over Saber Ant Red in my mind, but honestly I don’t see any weaknesses in it. It’s done very well against a wide range of decks, and I’m very comfortable with how it plays. The eight maindeck cantrips and the four in the board give it some amazing consistency. I decide to leave it alone and crash for some much-needed sleep.


The next day I get up pretty well charged, take a shower, and grab a quick overpriced breakfast. After some admonishment from the waitress, I finally try the alligator roe and I have to admit it’s not bad. Rather like pasty caviar. Anyway, I’m ready for battle!

My first matchup is against Zev Gurwitz, who is playing mono-blue Orb Opposition. I think my burn can carry the day against his weenies. The first game is close, but I manage to kill off his weenies with ease, and have a Zap/Pyroclasm combo ready for his Magpie. He never sees his Orb and a Rogue Kavu ends up going the distance. Second game he starts busting out some beef, with Troublesome Spirits, Ribbon Snakes, and a Stinging Barrier. He ends up out-muscling me and I never see any Orbs or Oppositions (though I had a fistful of Hull Breaches). Last match goes similarly, with some blue fat hitting the board. However, this time my board shines with Turf Wounds stalling him and a key Hull Breach knocking out an Opposition AND an Orb.

My next matchup is against Brian Hegstad, playing U/W control. When he plays a first-turn Coastal Tower, I know I’m in for a long match. He wins the die roll and basically counters just about every threat I cast. While two Flame Rifts and a little pinging gets him to nine, he ends up Milling the rest of my Rifts away, along with my library. I swap in the Instabilities for Pyroclasm and Squallmongers for Saber Ants. Some early Port action enables me to slip an Instability into play and it does enough disruption before he Dismantling Blows, I easily cast the spells I need to get him down to six. Unfortunately at this point he has a fist full of cards; he Absorbs a Rift and counters every other piece of burn, and Wraths anything that I try and get out. We end up running out of time with him at eleven life and me with six cards left in my library, so he somehow steals this match. Grrrr.

The next match is important in order to regain some momentum. I get paired up with Mike”Potato” Turian playing mono-white Rebels. Where the heck are the darn Fires decks I was hoping to kick around? The first game comes down to a Voice of All with protection from red stalling out my Scoria Cat. The second and third games I clutch draw my Squallmongers to knock out his protection creatures, and easily remove the rest of his men with Zaps, Seals, Assaults, and Pyros. A key Stun lets me get in for the final points of damage. Whew! I really feel I stole this one.

Round 10’s opponent is Chris Benafel, who has been on quite a hot streak lately. Dare I hope to break him of it? It ends up he’s playing Fires though, so I feel like the matchup is favorable. The first game I stall a bit on mana and he gets the perfect nuts draw with me taking 20+ points of damage by turn 4. Ouch! The second game is closer, though, with a key Hull Breach taking out a Fires and my Saber Ants working their magic against his fading creatures. Soon after they’re gone a Pyroclasm takes out the rest of his guys and I drop a Rogue Kavu that goes the distance. Then things get weird. The first two games took quite a bit of time, so I’m trying to play fast. Chris, however, decides to carefully ponder his every move, even if it’s such a difficult decision as playing a Forest or a Mountain and passing the turn. I try not to let it throw me off and do my best to ride my Rogue Kavu past the burning husks of anything that remotely resembles a blocker. He finally draws a Blastoderm, so I play my Scoria Cat. His Saproling Burst makes things look ugly until I draw a Saber Ant off the top. When I finally draw my eighth mana, I triumphantly play the Avatar that’s been sitting in my hand since the opening draw. He shows no visible signs of distress, but his turn goes on a ridiculously long time. I know he’s in trouble… But what sort of decisions take that long to make? I finally decide to call a judge over, who watches Chris carefully and eventually gives him a warning for stalling. The two of them get into a bit of an argument, while I just sit there with my hand on the Avatar, waiting for the opportunity to turn him sideways and pump lots of red mana into him. Finally I get that opportunity and the game is over, though somehow Chris has lost his chair during his conversation with the judge.

The next round is against Eugene Harvey, who is also playing Fires. My opening confidence is quickly shattered by the absolute beating he handed me. Though I burned all his early acceleration, he starts dropping Idols, Flametongues, Blastoderms, and a Wurm and I am quickly done for. Next game is almost as bad, when I have some brief glimmer of hope until he drops two Saproling Bursts back-to-back. Ouch. Why did my Saber Ants forsake me?

I have got to win the next round, and when I see the pairings I can’t help but be happy about it. It’s my whipping boy, Pete Leiher, who happens to also be playing Fires! Barring some completely insane draws on his part, I feel good about this one. My god, Day 3 and the final 8 are in my sights! The first game gets me focused back on the here in now, though, with Pete easily killing my Rogue Kavu and then playing out some big beats. I stall his attack with a Saber Ants and Scoria Cat, and wait for some of his threats to fade. He ends up rushing me to knock a few more life points off. Since he’s got a Fires in play, I don’t come over for a full counterattack – but I do send the Cat. At the end of my turn he Rages me, and then during his turn a nine-point Ghitu Fire kills me. Damn! Since he won, Pete is quite cheery and chatty. I board in the Hull Breaches and cross my fingers. Pete gets a slow draw and I manage to kill off all his accelerators with Pyroclasm. A Rogue Kavu begins to send, but ends up trading with a Chimeric Idol. He casts a Flametongue Kavu, killing off my Kavu, and I respond with a Saber Ant. He goes ahead and sends the Flametongue, I respond by Sealing my Ant to make two tokens, and then the Flametongue makes four more. I attack Pete for six and then drop a big Cat. Pete has nothing, so next turn I Rift him, take a few points of mana burn to make the Cat big, and send for twelve. Pete begins to curse his deck and gives me some dubious complements about how well my deck draws. I tell him when you put good cards in a deck, you’ll draw good cards. He laughs and says Saber Ants can’t be considered a good card. So what’s killing you right now, Pete? The last game is anticlimactic, since he has to mulligan and ends up keeping a hand with a Port and Dust Bowl as his only land. I help the situation out by Turf Wounding him the turn he drew a third land. By the time he can play anything, a Rogue Kavu had whittled him down and a Cat was about to pound on his skull. He scoops in disgust and stalks off.

That means I’m in the top 8, right? I think that’s the case, though I’ve never been here before so I’m not sure about the Swiss math, especially with the poker win percentages mixed in. I bump into Aaron Forsythe and Omeed, both of whom are startled to learn I’m in contention for top 8. I joke with Aaron some about his theory that you can’t be a good writer and a good player at the same time, and said that I guessed he was being a writer this weekend since he went oh-four-drop as a player. Aaron didn’t seem to think that was particularly humorous. Omeed talks to me about a few possible writing assignments coming up that I might be interested in. I think to myself”Hmm, all this time and I haven’t been good enough to write for the Sideboard… And now, all of a sudden…” I keep my cynicism to myself, however.

The Top 8 is calculated and posted, and I’m on it! Woo-hoo! Day 3, here I come. Dare I hope to qualify for Worlds?

I see I’m matched up against Casey McCarrel and, as I look over his decklist I get a sinking feeling in my gut. His blue deck is quite nasty and I have nothing in my board that can do much against a Fat Moti. I’d need twelve mana for my Squallmonger to knock it out of the skies. With all the Fires decks in the top 8, it’s just my luck not to get paired against any of them.

Still, making Top 8 at my first Nationals event is an amazing accomplishment for me, so I try not to worry much about tomorrow and go out for a few drinks. I bump into Adrian Sullivan who is very cool, and he actually DOES know who I am. He was kind enough to congratulate me for winning VA states two years ago, and he gives me some pointers in order to beat Casey’s blue deck. He also warns me to watch him carefully and make sure he doesn’t stack my deck or his own. I find it highly unlikely that someone would do that in the top 8 of Nationals of all things, but he tells me cheaters often can’t help themselves.

A little later in the evening, Sean McKeown walks over to us and I’m a bit worried he’s going to give me hell about his room. But he just comes over to talk with Adrian, briefly extracting himself from a throng of women that are all over him. In person, he looks a little like Keanu Reeves. It’s no wonder the ladies fall all over themselves around him, despite the weird antennas growing out of his ears. He’s got several large hickeys on his neck, and I shake my head with a bit of envy. I bid them adieu a little later and go crash in his room to get plenty of rest for tomorrow. I’m only woken up once by some sweet thing pounding on the door looking for Sean.

I wake up refreshed and pumped. I’m going to do well, I can feel it. I’m in the Zone, confident, relaxed and comfortable. I sit down across from Casey and shuffle up. He presents his deck to me without shuffling. I look over at the judge sitting there, but he doesn’t say anything. I pick up his deck and give it three good riffle shuffles. Casey looks peeved and snatches my deck from me. He then turns around in his chair and hunches over my deck so I can’t see it.”What are you doing?” I ask him incredulously. He doesn’t answer me. I look over at the judge, but he doesn’t say anything either. After several minutes go by, I hear Casey chuckle as he turns around and gives my deck back. He’s got a big grin on his face. I look at the deck with suspicion and ask the judge to make sure my deck is sufficiently randomized. Casey’s grin quickly vanishes from his face. The judge calls another judge over and they both pick up my deck and walk off with it. Weird, but I guess it’s for some sort of evidence integrity thing.

“What did you do that for?” Casey asks me. When I don’t answer, he mutters”***hole.”

About ten minutes later, the head judge comes up and asks Casey to follow him. They go off and have a discussion, and then I see Casey being dragged off by several rather large individuals. The head judge comes up to me and tells me I win the match due to Casey being disqualified. Holy Pikula, I’m going to Worlds!

I grab a Coke and some gator fries and wait for my next opponent to be determined. It ends up being Eugene Harvey, who smoked me like salmon yesterday. He’s playing Fires, though, so I know I have a chance in this rematch. The first game my deck acts quite weird, drawing all burn but no creatures except an Avatar of Fury. However, I manage to slow him up with the burn, get eight mana, drop the Avatar and kill him soon afterwards. He shows me the two Bursts in his hand that he couldn’t play without a fifth land. Whew! The next game was nuts, and it was all Eugene. Classic Bird/Fires/Blastoderm/Burst quick death, and nothing I could do about it. The next game was all about my three Saber Ants draw; combined with Pyroclasm, that’s six token creatures that quickly whittled his life total away. Zap/Flame Rift took out his last five life. The next game came down to a Shivan Wurm I just couldn’t handle after he killed my Cat earlier in the game. He ended up saccing two Fires to it for mad trampling beats. Now we’re both at 2-2, so this next game is for all the marbles. I draw a fist full of burn, including two Zaps, and start clearing the way for the turn 2 Kavu I drew off the top. The Kavu does his job enough to bring him into Flame Rift range, and I end it. I’m on the U.S. Team, and in the Finals, baby!

The game with Eugene took awhile, so I already knew Trevor Blackwell would be my opponent. I also knew his maindeck Barbarians and Battlemages were less than impressive against my deck. After a quick break I told him I was ready to go, and we shuffled up for the final match.

Trevor wins the roll and we play a little cat and mouse with his early critters and my burn. Then we get into a little Port war as we accumulate lands. He misses a land drop first and I manage to get a Rogue Kavu into play and he goes to work on Trevor’s life. I draw two more Ports after that and, even though Trevor draws a few more lands, I lock him up until he’s in Flame Rift range. The next game I find myself looking at two Saber Ants in my opening hand and feel pretty good about my chances. Trevor starts out fairly well, with some hasted weenies pounding on me and me desperately trying to burn ’em. I then drop a Saber Ants that stalls him for a moment, so I drop my second one and put him in a real pickle. He doesn’t draw a solution so he passes the turn. I peel a Pyroclasm off the top and nuke the board, making four 1/1 tokens. He saves a Barbarian by saccing his Fires. Without a Fires on the board I decide to go on offense and send everyone over, so he kills a token and takes seven. I drop a big Cat. He drops a Blastoderm. I drop an Avatar of Fury and turn all my dudes sideways. He scoops. The next game we shuffle up, and when I draw my hand I know things are gonna be all right. Three Saber Ants and four lands stare back at me. Trevor goes first and starts fast with a turn 1 Elf, turn 2 Fires. I have a nothing to do but play a Kavu and pray. He drops a Battlemage, killing the Kavu and serving for two. I drop a land and unfortunately pass the turn. He plays a Blastoderm and knocks me for seven. I play my fourth land and triumphantly cast a Saber Ants. He kills it with a Flametongue and sends them over, and I block all of them with tokens. Next turn I play another Saber Ant and a Seal of Fire. He plays another Battlemage with kicker, kills my token, and swings with all his dudes. I seal my Ants to make two more blockers for a Kavu and Battlemage, block the Blastoderm with my Ants and take 2. I make five more tokens and Trevor shakes his head in frustration.”Those Saber Ants are a royal pain,” he mutters good-naturedly. On my turn, I attack with my tokens and he casts Simoon to destroy all of them. Damn! So much for sneaking in some damage. I then cast another Saber Ants and cast Pyroclasm, which would clear his side of the board except for the quickly-fading Blastoderm. He thinks a moment, I guess considering saving his Kavu by sacrificing the Fires, but evidently decides he’d rather keep the Fires in play. I pass the turn and cross my fingers. No Burst from him, and he swings with the Blastoderm. I block with the Ants and make five dudes. On my turn I play the backbreaker– Hull Breach on his Fires. He shakes his head at his misfortune. I attack with seven guys and he moves his life total down. I then play my FOURTH Saber Ants, fresh from the top of my deck.”ANOTHER one?” Trevor yells, incredulous. I grin.”They’re my signature card.” He draws, looks at his card in disgust, and then plays the Flametongue Kavu.”Four to my Ants?” I ask.”No, one of those damn insect tokens,” he tells me. I know I must have him shaken, because the best thing you can do with Saber Ants is just to kill ’em while you have the chance. On my turn I Assault his Kavu and swing with all my dudes. His life total is dwindling rapidly, so he raps the top of his deck and draws. He shakes his head in disgust at his deck, but then puts on his best smile and starts to reach out his hand. My god, this means I’m the U.S. Champion!

“FREEZE!” comes a loud voice that weirdly echoes throughout the hall. Trevor stops in his tracks and suddenly I realize that everyone else has frozen too. I stand up and look around. Everyone is frozen, like a DVD that’s paused. What the hell is going on?

Except, not everyone is frozen. I see someone weaving through the crowd towards me. He’s tall, wearing a long black trenchcoat and mirrored sunglasses. He stops in front of me, his feet spread wide and his hands behind his back. He smiles, looking very cool and styling.

“You have done well, Bennie.”

“Who are you?”

“I am the man they call Donais.”

“Mike Donais? With the DCI?”

“That is one of my aliases, yes. I am here because you’re looking for something.”

“Winning Nationals?”

“Maybe. But is that something you really want? Look around at these people. They live their life from day to day, playing Magic and not doing much of anything else. This is their world. Do you really want to be a part of that?”

I wasn’t sure how to answer that. Donais pulled out one of his hands from behind his back and opened it, revealing a little blue round thing.

“If you want to go back to the life you lived, with your wife, beautiful baby girl, good job and plenty of future ahead of you, then take this blue pill and all of this will be erased. You can go back to that as if none of this ever happened.”

He then pulled out his other hand and opened it, revealing… Nothing.

“If you really want to be a part of Professional Magic, realize that you’ve got a hard road ahead of you. Tons of travelling, doing nothing much more than playing Magic. You’re likely to go into debt, since most Magic players don’t win enough to offset their expenses. Your relationships will suffer. You probably won’t be able to keep your job. Your little girl will start to wonder who her daddy is. If that’s the life you want, then take this red pill. You will be able to finish this game and be the U.S. champ. People will then recognize you and vote for you in the Writer’s War even if you haven’t written anything good for months.”

I looked down at his hand but no red pill appeared.

“Uh, Donais, I don’t see a red pill.”

“Maybe you don’t really want the red pill. Maybe your mind refuses to see it.”

He grinned and held his hands up. Did I really want to be a part of Professional Magic? Was it worth the sacrifices involved to play at that level? Or could I get enough satisfaction with playing in local tournaments and occasional PTQs? I could keep my balance of Magic and real life just the way it is. It wasn’t so bad. Heck, it was actually pretty damn good, even if no one recognizes me when I go to tournaments.

I reached out and took the blue pill.”I’ll forget all this happened?” Donais nodded. I threw my head back and swallowed the pill.

I looked at him while I waited for something to happen.”Donais – I thought you were short?”

Things began to get all swirly and darkness quickly descended. When I next opened my eyes I was in my bed at home, my wife’s arm thrown over my chest.

But I remembered. I remembered what really happened at Nationals. I’m a big guy, though; they must have gotten the dosage wrong.

Sunday evening I go to the Sideboard website to read about the”official” course of the tournament. I look in amazement at how smoothly they extracted me from the tournament with minimal disruption. I was glad to hear Trevor won the whole thing. He seemed like a nice guy. Hopefully, he won’t have nightmares of Saber Ants and wonder why.

But if you read closely, there are some cracks in the façade. They aren’t perfect at covering their tracks.

PROPS: My wife, little girl, and a new job. The future’s so bright, I’ve got to wear shades. To John Shuler, for his excellent 1997 Regionals report. And to Trevor Blackwell and the rest of our Nationals Team – best of luck at Worlds!

SLOPS: To Casey McCarrel, Chris Benafel and others who think it’s cool to win at all costs. Stop stalling, stop the shady behavior, and play the game like a gentleman.

Note: All resemblance between characters in this article and real life people may or may not be intentional. Parental guidance is suggested.