This isn’t going to be the normal tournament report or a play-by-play retelling of my matches from last weekend. Rather than tell you exactly why I chose the fifteenth card of my sideboard or how I ripped a 14-outer in three draw steps to win a game I was 54% likely to lose, I figured I’d share a story instead. I have been blessed with a lot of success in the past two weeks. It’s been an exciting time for me and it’s something I could definitely get used to, but things weren’t always coming up roses. I felt like I have experienced a huge progression over the course of the past two years, both in my Magic play and my life in general. I hope the story provides some perspective on what it took for me to get here. Hopefully you can get something out of it.
Indianapolis has always had some sort of special significance to me when it comes to Magic. In 2011, I decided to embark on a journey to Indianapolis with some friends to try to grind into the Invitational there. I hadn’t been playing Magic for a few months, but I had the itch again and I wanted to see if I could make it.
For the prior year straight, I had played nothing that wasn’t UW Control. Deciding to play Caw-Blade was therefore an easy choice to make. I played in a grinder with a list I worked on that had Emeria Angels in the maindeck and Mirran Crusaders in the sideboard. As I lost late in that event, I realized that Mirran Crusader was coming in for almost every matchup and that I hated the Spell Pierces in my deck.
I joined a second grinder with those Mirran Crusaders main. In the second round, I played a kid named Justin Uppal. His Go for the Throats did not match up well against Protection from Black. In the finals, I played a guy playing a mono-white Stoneforge deck with the infinite life combo of Soul Warden, Leonin Relic-Warder and Phyrexian Metamorph. In the final game, he assembled infinite life on turn three. Not too long after that, I killed him with an Inkmoth Nexus the same turn I ultimated Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Alternate win conditions are sweet.
I finished in eighteenth place in my first Invitational. It was my first decent finish and I was happy about it. I knew I wanted more. That was a key starting point for my quest for Magic glory.
For the most part, my life has gone pretty well. I had a good childhood and I haven’t experienced a whole lot in the way of hardships. Feel free to take that into consideration when I say that the first six months of 2012 were the worst six months of my life.
It started with me scrubbing out of Pro Tour Dark Ascension in Hawaii. During the months that followed, I essentially forgot what the Top Eight of a tournament looked like. Not only was I losing a lot, I wasn’t really enjoying myself, and I simply couldn’t afford to go to any more events. I didn’t have a job and not winning anything meant that my funds were rapidly depleting. By the time June rolled around, I was running out of money – scratch that, I had already run out of money. I had run out a while back, if I am being truly honest. I owed a lot of people money that I had “borrowed” by virtue of their generosity while not really being able to pay them what I owed them in the foreseeable future. I was at the maximum limit on my credit card, and my bank account was drier than the Sahara during Prohibition. It was all starting to catch up to me, and I had no clue what I was going to do.
My lifestyle choices were also alienating people I cared about. I felt like I was losing a lot of the friends I had, for one reason or another. Money was part of it. Another part of it was that I had no desire to see people or talk to people. I was ashamed of how I was letting my life waste away, and the easiest way to deal with it was to simply avoid people as often as possible. I ignored a lot of phone calls and skipped a lot of invitations to do things. You can only do that so many times before people stop calling or caring.
When you see people, they always ask you the inevitable question of “how are you doing” or “what are you doing?” I was embarrassed by the answers to those questions and preferred to skirt them altogether. The best way to do that was to never be around people who would ask them.
I pretty much had no future, or at least none that I could see. I didn’t have a college degree, I had dropped out of that. I had no money, and could barely stand the thought of slaving away at another minimum wage-ish job with poor work conditions just to scrape by. I knew I was smart and that I could succeed at something, but I didn’t know what that something was or how to actually go about doing that.
People kept telling me to go back to school. I had tried and failed at that enough times to know that something had to change with me personally before that would ever succeed. Besides, I already owed enough money in student loan debt. Why tack on more? There had to be something else.
I was also depressed. I had been depressed on-and-off for years, but I was pretty much “on” all the time during this period. I spent my entire day playing Magic Online, trying and failing to make some semblance of a paltry living grinding every last bit of value from every event I could. When things didn’t go my way, I raged. I didn’t rage at my opponents, generally speaking, but I raged internally. Well, I guess it was sometimes done externally. There were times, at 2-1 in a daily event, where my opponent miracled two Bonfires in a row and I had to go outside for a bit to cool down. Another 2-2… It’s hard to take a loss in good stride when each and every one of them is directly hitting your finances. Some of my friends can certainly attest to how often I whined about my opponents always having a turn-one Champion of the Parish in a Block Constructed Daily. I started keeping spreadsheets about how bad I was running. Talk about life tilt.
I hated losing so much that I would rage when it happened. I hated the fact that I couldn’t control my emotions enough to hold back from raging whenever things didn’t fall into place. Mostly, though, I just hated myself.
I found myself lying awake at night a lot, reminiscing about years past when my life was more in control. I found myself wishing I could get things back to that point, but I could never quite figure out the answer to “how do I do that?” I also thought a lot about the questions: “How did I get here?” “Just how many wrong choices did I make to end up like this?” There was a lot of self-loathing going on.
I did my best to hide it. I’m not sure how many of my friends actually knew what was going on with me. I smiled and joked and tried to cover it up. I acted like nothing was wrong. In reality, I was broke, alone, and felt hopeless.
The StarCityGames Invitational in June 2012 at Indianapolis was probably going to be my last tournament, at least for a while. I was going to quit Magic, try to find a job, and slowly work toward paying people back. I was going to be a responsible person for once. I knew something had to change; I couldn’t keep living the way I was living.
Then the Invitational happened. I was going to play Delver in the Standard portion. I hated the deck, and I was probably the 47th best Delver pilot in the room, so I wasn’t exactly expecting much success from it. Still, it was the best deck and I felt it would be foolish not to play it. In Legacy, I was just going to battle with Stoneblade and hope it was good enough. I had been testing the week leading up to the event and felt good about it, even though a number of people had just written articles about how it was unplayable.
Well, as it happened, Brad Nelson worked on an update to the Frites deck that had essentially fallen off the radar completely. I decided on a whim that I was going to take the plunge and join him in playing it. Pretty much anything was better than playing Delver.
I ended up going 7-1 in Standard with Frites. I snuck by at 5-3 in Legacy with Stoneblade and I ended up in Top Eight.
Suddenly, things weren’t quite so grim. The $3,000 I got from the Invitational was a good start to getting things back in order. I was able to settle up with people and even pay off a good bit of debt. I had a little breathing room. I didn’t have to quit Magic.
I had gotten lucky. I definitely wasn’t playing my best Magic. It wasn’t a coincidence that I hadn’t touched a Top Eight in half a year or more. When you’re depressed and your mind is preoccupied with other things – things like how desperately you need the money from the tournament to pay for food – it’s kind of hard to perform well in said tournament. You may not think that it affects you. I certainly didn’t put two and two together at the time. But looking at results is all it really takes to see how much it really did affect me.
Regardless of whether or not I deserved to Top Eight that Invitational, I wasn’t about to let it go to waste. That was the spark I needed to set my life straight, and I wanted to ensure I did exactly that. My lease finished at the end of June, a few weeks after the Invitational. I loaded all my stuff in my car and drove to Roanoke, Virginia. I didn’t have a job there… or a place to live… but that’s where I wanted to live. I’d work out the details later.
Thankfully, Reuben Bresler did something awesome. He let me stay on his couch for a few months while I got things figured out. I went around to a few random places in Roanoke trying to find employment, but I wasn’t really excited about any of those possibilities. I had already worked enough terrible jobs to know how they can wear on you. I would do it if I needed to, but I really wanted to work at StarCityGames. By this point, I was already writing semi-regular articles and doing videos, but I was hoping to get a real job with them as well.
Sometime in late July or early August I got a call about interviewing for a position at SCG. The interview went well and I got the job, despite the fact that I spelled my e-mail address wrong on my resume like a true professional. “As you can tell by the pristine nature of my work, I’ve been at this resume game for a long time.”
Ali Aintrazi moved up to Roanoke as well to start work around the same time, and we got an apartment together. During the next few months, I basically just focused on trying to move my ledgers from the negatives to the positives. I still was missing the Top Eight of every tournament I entered; I hadn’t Top Eighted a tournament since that Invitational in June. But it also didn’t matter nearly as much now.
At the start of November, I made another decision. I decided I wanted to improve myself. Usually that statement is followed by something. “I want to improve myself at Magic.” “I want to improve myself at drawing better in the Belcher mirror.” Something. This time there wasn’t anything to follow the statement with. I just wanted to improve myself. I was tired, both literally and figuratively, of how much I weighed, how unhealthy I was, how poor I felt all the time and how it affected me. I wanted to make a change.
Ali had been dieting and going to the gym daily, and it was easy to see the positive changes it was making in his life. On a whim, I decided I wanted in. I made the decision that I was going to start going to the gym and then I refused to think about it lest I talk myself out of it. I had always hated the gym, and every prior time I had tried to commit to going regularly I would inevitably fail. I can definitely say that there is no way I would have succeeded this time without the support of Ali helping push me to do it.
The gameplan was to combine exercise with a low-carb diet. I cut out drinking anything except water. I stopped eating terrible food and started eating a diet of mostly meat, vegetables, and cheese. I went to the gym after work. I lost ten pounds the first week.
The success was intoxicating. As soon as I saw that this was actually something I could do, I jumped in full force.
As I started to lose weight, I began to also notice improvements in other aspects of my life, namely Magic. In November, I made Top Eight of a Legacy Open with a BUG control deck playing about 90 maindeck planeswalkers, including a copy of Garruk Relentless. Notororius thug, G Relentless was pretty instrumental in a lot of my wins, including holding off a Tarmogoyf in the quarterfinals for a bunch of turns until I could find an answer.
Around the same time, I lost in the finals of a PTQ. It was Return to Ravnica Sealed Deck and the third game of the finals was an epic match where I used Underworld Connections to take myself all the way to one life, but I missed on a second red source in all of that time and lost without being able to cast the Annihilating Fire I had in hand and needed in order to stabilize and pull ahead. So close.
While I still wasn’t winning anything, I was at least starting to hit the board again.
In February, I lost in the finals of a Standard Open in Atlanta, and then lost in the semifinals of the Legacy Open the next day. A few months later, I lost in the Top Four of the Atlanta Invitational. Then I won a PTQ that same month. A few months later, I lost in the finals of another Open.
I was noticing some direct correlations. Around the time that I started to lose weight, I also started to perform significantly better in Magic tournaments. The harder I worked on a deck and the more time I spent trying to perfect it, the better the results I was getting with it. I spent a lot of time brewing, testing, and thinking about the best way to play Junk Reanimator during this time and that work was all paying off.
To me, it was clear that this was a simple case of cause and effect. You could say it was a coincidence, that my weight loss and hard work just happened to line up at the same time as my success, and that the two aren’t related, but I wouldn’t believe you. I felt better. I was thinking clearer. I was happier.
In August, I reached my goal of losing a hundred pounds. Nothing I’ve ever done in Magic can compare to that accomplishment, at least in my eyes. When you win a tournament in Magic, a lot of factors are at work. There is a lot of skill involved, yes, but there is also a handful of luck. There’s never a definitive answer to the question of “did I deserve to win this tournament or was I just lucky enough to do so?” Losing a hundred pounds has nothing to do with luck. The only factor that matters in losing weight is how hard you work at it. For nine months, I worked hard for it and I was rewarded. It felt awesome.
I was excited to make it back to Indianapolis this weekend. Two years ago in Indy, I got my first taste of the Invitational and what it meant to play Magic on a slightly larger stage. Last year, I earned my first Invitational Top Eight and started an upward trajectory to fix the problems in my life. This year, I was coming into it fresh off of a Grand Prix victory, by far the greatest accomplishment I’ve had in Magic, and I was looking for more.
I wanted to solidify my win. I didn’t want people to look on my Grand Prix Louisville victory as a mere fluke. I wanted to use this opportunity to push for more. I was hungry for a win.
I played Mono Black Devotion in Standard and Sneak and Show in Legacy. I didn’t have any time to test between the GP and the Invitational. I played almost the same Standard list as the week before. I figured people would be gunning for it, but I also figured it was good enough to win through it. I adjusted my list for the mirror match, but that’s about it.
Sneak and Show was the obvious choice for Legacy. I just feel like it is the strongest deck in Legacy, and I don’t think it is particularly close. It’s a powerful and consistent combo deck that can lock up the game as early as turn one, and it has a plethora of countermagic to protect itself. While hate cards exist to fight Sneak and Show, they are pretty much all narrow answer cards. Something like Ashen Rider can be put into play off of Show and Tell and blow up an Emrakul, but what happens if your opponent just casts Sneak Attack and annihilates you instead?
It was no surprise to me that four copies of the deck were in the Top Eight of the Invitational and that Sneak and Show won every match it possibly could in that Top Eight.
My tournament went about as well as I could hope it to. I ended Day One at 8-0. I dropped the first match of Day Two to Huey in the Sneak and Show mirror, but won the next four straight to push forward to 12-1. At that point, I just needed to draw one of the next three matches to make Top Eight. And I got there.
I’m not sure what it is, but Invitationals have been generally kind to me. I’ve played in eight and I’ve made Top Eight in three of them. That’s a pretty good rate. It’s obviously nothing compared to Gerry Thompson insane six Top Eights in nine appearances record, but Gerry is simply on a different level than almost everyone else.
When I showed up on Sunday to play in the Top Eight, I was ready to battle. The Top Eight was stacked. My road to winning the tournament was to beat Gerry Thompson in the Sneak and Show mirror, followed by Brad Nelson in the mirror, followed by Huey Jensen in the mirror.
Pretty easy game, right?
It’s just a guy who I have a terrible lifetime win rate against and who has ten years of Pro Tour experience and insane invitational success, followed by the 2010 Player of the Year, followed by a Magic Hall of Famer. I just have to beat them all back to back to back in a Brainstorm mirror match in Legacy, a skill-intensive format without much room for error.
It felt like the last level of a video game on insane difficulty. It’s weird, but I actually was confident. I thought that this time I was going to beat the game. Not even the best of the best were going to stand between me and victory on that day.
I wanted the prestige of beating that murderer’s row about as much as I wanted the trophy.
I decided to take a bit of an unorthodox approach to the games. I opted to be on the draw. Gerry, Brad, and Huey all chose to be on the play, and in discussing it with them, I also believe they all disagreed with my choice. I made this decision because of the experiences I had throughout the tournament. In playing the Sneak and Show mirror in the Swiss rounds, I found that games were frequently going long and the first person to blink and try to resolve a threat was the one who generally lost. It felt like going in on the draw to get an extra card and some extra consistency could be key in winning those games.
The downside was that your opponent would be up on mana and could potentially punish you by being faster than you were. I felt like the odds of them having an explosive hand in a post-board game and you not having a way to answer it was reasonably unlikely.
If it backfired on me I expected to get some backlash from it. People would think that I was just doing it to be cute. I had chosen to draw twice in the tournament already, once against Esper Control in Standard and once in the Sneak and Show mirror in Legacy. I had won both of those games, so I was on a “being on the draw” high. Give me that extra card, son!
It didn’t end up backfiring, at least against Gerry. When he mulliganed Game One on the play and I had a great seven on the draw, I felt like I couldn’t lose. I was able to win in three games. I got a bit lucky, but I’ll take it how I can get it. It sucked that Gerry and I had to play. I could see how much Gerry wanted to win his last tournament before working for WotC. If there was a way that both of us could have won, I would have easily gone for that, but unfortunately no such option exists.
My match against Brad was very close. After winning Game One, I had a looser keep in Game Two and lost and then mulled to five in Game Three and lost again. I was able to win a close Game Four and we were off to Game Five. I think Game Five against Brad was one of the most disappointing games of Magic I have ever played. After his turn-one gambit of City of Traitors, double Lotus Petal plus Sneak Attack met my Force of Will, Brad was down a full four cards. My hand was good. I had a second Force of Will and two Sneak Attacks.
I just never drew a monster. Draw step after draw step. Brainstorm into Ponder into Brainstorm. I don’t know the math, but I feel like I had to be something like 95% to win that game if not more. I couldn’t believe that the near impossible happened and I bricked so many consecutive times to actually lose. It just didn’t make sense. It was my tournament to win.
For a while, I was stuck in the mindset of bemoaning my luck. Don’t get me wrong, I did get very unlucky to lose. Still, there was a mistake I made that also cost me the game. There was a turn where I had Brainstorm and Intuition. If I had cast Brainstorm before Intuition, I would have enticed Brad to counter my Brainstorm. If he does, Intuition resolves and I can get the Emrakul I need to win. I simply didn’t think about it. I made a mistake, and I paid the price.
It just goes to show that as far as I’ve gotten in Magic and life in the past year, I still have that much further to go. I still have another thirty pounds to lose. I still need to improve my game to where I am winning an Invitational, not just making it to the semifinals. I still plan on making it on the big stage, the Pro Tour. I’m making progress, and I’m pleased with how much I’ve changed, but there’s no such thing as ever being finished or reaching the end. There’s always something else you can do to become better.
At the very least, when I lay awake late at night I no longer reminisce about the past. No more do I think about how things were better and how I wish I could go back to the way things were.
2013 has been the best year of my life. Now I dream about the future and how I can make it better.