I once wrote a suicide note to my mom.
But I suppose that’s a hell of a way to start a tournament report. People also don’t typically write about finishes outside the money in a Grand Prix. Maybe this isn’t simply a tournament report after all . . .
Well, let’s try again and take a step back before we get to that little tidbit.
Cold & Blind
For me, Grand Prix Washington DC started out weeks before the event; no, not because I put weeks into playtesting, but rather I sent Kenny Mayer messages asking to borrow Shardless BUG. He assured me that as long as the cards didn’t conflict with his deck choice I had first call on stuff to borrow. That man is a saint; if not for Kenny Mayer, a ton of people wouldn’t have been able to play in the Grand Prix. If you happened to walk by the table he was sitting at around 8:30 on Saturday morning, you’d see a line of people waiting for him to distribute stuff for them to borrow.
So I wanted to take a bit of space to thank Kenny; without him, I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t be playing Magic these days. I’m sure I’m not the only one either.
While I knew what I was going to play, I also have a couple of hindrances to testing Legacy. First, I live in a town that is at least twenty miles from any gaming store. While this may be a non-issue for most, living in the Washington DC area traffic makes it so that those twenty miles feel more like 100. I don’t own any Legacy cards of note after my mother’s passing in September, as I had to sell everything off to help pay for her final expenses. I have four children and work a full-time job and then have to drive through DC traffic to get home.
By the time I do all of that, it’s nearly impossible to find time between dinner for the kids, homework, and sleeping to do Legacy testing.
I had to go in cold and blind.
Luckily, StarCityGames.com knew of my issues and decided to dedicate all of the week leading up to the Grand Prix to helping folks like me out. Drew Levin had a great series on Legacy that I pored over as much as possible. Since I knew I’d be playing Gerry Thompson brainchild, I went through GerryT’s archived writing and reread everything mentioning the card "Shardless Agent" (which included some great Hypergenesis insight). I watched coverage archives, I watched Gerry’s matches in the Invitationals he played Shardless BUG in, and I did everything I could to get a feel for how the deck plays and ways to approach most matchups.
Regardless, I went into that Saturday morning cold, having never played a single game with the deck.
Not so fast, my friend . . .
I have incredible attention issues. Some call that ADD/ADHD, but as of now I’ve never been to a doctor to get an official diagnosis. Based on what I read from others who have it, I can say that I fully believe I do as well, but as I’m no doctor, I’ll just stick with "attention issues."
While I don’t know what exactly to call it, I can honestly tell you that at any one point in time there is a veritable storm of thoughts swirling around in my head fighting for my attention. If you’ve ever met me in person and tried talking to me only to get "ignored," you wouldn’t be the only one. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been accused of ignoring someone when the fact that they ever talked to me to begin with never registered. I get lost in the swirling sea of thoughts that is my mind.
An example of this occurs all the time at work; I will pick up lunch and forget to grab flatware. No worries, there’s a cafe on the way back to my desk; however, I know that I’m likely to forget to stop at it even though it is directly in the path to my desk. So I start saying to myself, "Need to get a fork. Don’t forget the fork."
But my mind immediately starts wandering. Inevitably, in the process of trying to think about remembering to grab the fork, my mind wanders to other thoughts, and I forget every single time.
I know this seems trivial, like something everyone does, but try as I might I cannot force myself to focus on any one thing for more than a fleeting moment. I have conversations where in the middle of actually talking and making a point my mind will wander so far that I forget what I was talking about as I’m saying it, leading to an awkward silence where I end up admitting that I forgot what I was talking about.
Put it this way: I cannot fathom what it feels like to be able to sit down and focus on one singular thing for more than a split second. I don’t have the perspective and don’t have the experience; I would have no idea how that even feels.
So when I go to big tournaments, I have to trick myself into paying attention. Granted, it’s easier because I love playing Magic, so my mind isn’t as predispositioned to wander; however, it’s impossible to stop completely.
So I trick myself.
Ever since Grand Prix Pittsburgh a couple of years back, I’ve been writing small letters to myself before the start of each round of big events on my life pad. They’re very simple, and they usually consist of something like, "Slow down. Relax. No rush. Think."
Again, my mind has an incredibly rough time with focusing on any one thing for more than a split second, so I rush through every thought process, and it reflects in everything I do. I talk fast, I forget what I’m writing because my fingers can’t keep up with my mind, and I make plays in a Magic game that I’ve already eliminated as possibilities due to thinking too fast and outthinking myself. So I have to tell myself to slow down.
I sat down for round 1 and began the round the same way I wanted to for the next fifteen: "Slow down. Relax. No rush."
My opponent revealed that he’d read my articles before, something I still find to be awesome when someone tells me. We shuffled up, and I was oddly calm knowing that I was about to play my very first game with a deck in a format I hardly ever play against someone who just revealed that he’s primarily a Legacy player.
I refused to admit defeat before the round and started playing.
Rounds 1-9: "Day 1"
I took down my first round against a Death and Taxes deck that just couldn’t keep up with the card advantage of Shardless BUG. My round 2 opponent sat down and immediately called a judge before the round even started or we present decks. Actually, it was before he even took his deck out of the box. I was shuffling my deck, lost in the trivial act required before each round, and this jolted me out of my thoughts. What have I done!?
"Sorry man, I have to have the judge help me shuffle." He showed me his wrist brace. My heightened state relaxed as I realized I wasn’t in trouble. It took my wandering mind about half of a split second to start considering what decks could he be playing that didn’t require shuffling. I presumed that since he couldn’t shuffle his deck himself he wouldn’t play a deck that required digging, cantripping, and shuffling.
Basically, I assumed he wasn’t playing a Brainstorm deck.
Then he played a Scalding Tarn into Ponder.
Sneak and Show it is.
Aren’t I supposed to have a bad matchup with this deck, I thought. Everything I read from Gerry Thompson and Drew Levin stated that my combo matchup wasn’t sound. I took down game 1 on the back of a Force of Will for his Sneak Attack and moved to game 2. My opponent played a Blood Moon when I was tapped out and only had a Deathrite Shaman (with three lands in graveyards). I played my second Deathrite Shaman the next turn to give me access to double colored mana, planning on trying to hit Golgari Charm or Abrupt Decay with the cascade. I drew a Thoughtseize, and the plan changed to Thoughtseize + Tarmogoyf and ride that.
I Thoughtseized and saw Sneak Attack, Griselbrand, Polluted Delta. Fairly certain I take the Sneak Attack here, right?
1. Take Sneak Attack.
2. Play Goyf.
3. Cross fingers.
My opponent drew and passed the turn. I attacked with two Squires and a half-priced Rowan Treefolk. A stellar plan to beat a deck that aims to beat you with demons of legend and flyin’ annihilatin’ spaghetti monsters.
My opponent drew and passed the turn again. The Squires and Treefolk did their duty again, and again, and . . .
My opponent showed me a hand of double Emrakul, the Aeons Torn and Griselbrand. I suppose taking the Sneak Attack worked there.
Variance was also definitely on my side.
Each round I’d sat down and wrote the same thing on my life pad. Each round I’d come out ahead. I sat down for round 3 and sank really far down into my chair. It was broken, the back end going much further back than it was meant to. I felt like I was in a hospital bed in a cartoon, folded in half. I tried sitting on the front of the seat, shuffling while talking to my opponent, before realizing that this too was far too uncomfortable to do for an entire round. I called a judge over, asked if I could find a replacement, and sat down to battle.
All of this "excitement" occupied my thoughts long enough for me to forget to write the note on my life pad.
I promptly lost to a guy who revealed that he had gotten no sleep after his drive from Canada playing a deck that he claimed he threw together because "it has all the cards I like." The only cards that mattered to me were the Geist of Saint Trafts he was attacking with and the various Swords it carried into battle. And just like that I realized my folly in not writing my pre-round note.
I’m not usually a superstitious man, but I made sure to start writing my note to myself each round from then on.
Round 4 I played against Storm. To my left I saw a player with a Kor Skyfisher in play, and to my right a Hallowed Fountain. Neither had byes.
I won the round, but if not for game 1, I wouldn’t have had the chance. Game 1 was a very quick affair, as he played Cabal Therapy naming Force of Will on turn 1 and upon seeing none proceeded to combo on turn 2 . . .
Except my one draw step was a Force of Will for his Infernal Tutor.
Variance factor: up.
I don’t deserve these wins. I shouldn’t be winning after Blood Moon, and I got incredibly lucky to draw one of my three Force of Wills right before my opponent comboed off.
I once wrote a suicide note to my mom.
I suppose this is a much more suitable place for that line, as it pertains to what I’m about to say.
I grew up in a life that some would call rough. I say that perspective is required, that my "rough" life would have been a veritable heaven to Shin Dong-hyuk. However, in the context of American life, I suppose it wasn’t the greatest.
We were easily the poorest kids in school my entire childhood. School kids can be incredibly cruel, using those less fortunate as a stepping stone to social status. I was always the stepping stone, even to my older brother.
The tormentors never stopped, even after I got home. I never wanted to go to school because I would openly face ridicule in class, on the bus, even by the bus driver herself who made me sit in the back so that no one "would have to be around me," laughing with the girls who giggled at that statement.
I never wanted to go home because my older brother awaited me there. Not only did he ridicule me verbally but also physically, making sure I knew my place. His torment went beyond usual older brother fights; he would make sure to pin me down and make me feel completely incapacitated and helpless before pummeling me. He would make sure I knew that I was his inferior.
When I see stories of Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito, when I see people stating that he’s "not a man" for not standing up and whatever other crap they come up with, I remember how helpless I felt when even the people in charge were in on the torment. I felt I had nowhere to turn, as my parents were too busy out getting drunk or high to notice or care. Everywhere I turned the people who should have been looking out for my well-being were either adding to the torment or turning a blind eye. It had nothing to do with how strong of a person I was, as eventually the helpless feeling wears even the strongest of people down. I dealt with a lot of things, but even I eventually had enough.
Sometime during my seventh grade year, I grabbed a pen and carefully wrote a letter to my mom. I won’t put the contents here, but suffice to say that I meant every word and that I’d finally lost all hope.
The only reason I’m alive today is because I didn’t have the "courage" to actually go through with it. I was close. Some would say it was a "razor-thin margin."
Thankfully, I never went through with it, but I forgot to throw away the note. I left it under the bed, and Mom found it. Her emotions after reading it showed me I did matter, and that’s probably the reason I never tried again. I never got a chance to thank her for that.
As a result of all of this, I always feel inferior at a subconscious level. In my mind I’m never good enough, and I always doubt both myself and the motives of others. Even when things are actually going my way, I always find a way of making sure that I "know my place." Narratives play in my head, words that I presume are going through others’ heads. "What an idiot. I can’t believe I lost to this buffoon. This guy is terrible." Every time I submit an article to Cedric, I await a return email telling me to clean up my act, that the article was terrible.
I know it shouldn’t matter what random people think. Sitting here I 100% know that. When I’m face to face with someone and dealing with them, it matters much more than it should. I wish it didn’t.
So when I started picking up wins at Grand Prix Washington DC, I was 100% sure that my losses were well deserved and my wins were purely luck. I mean, I hadn’t played a game with the deck and never play Legacy; the only feasible explanation for my success was purely luck. I knew that my opponents hated me and my cursed luck, and I could "hear" their thoughts in my head.
I mean, winning underneath Blood Moon? Drawing my three-outer?
Against my next opponent playing True-Name Fish, a situation came up in game 3 where my opponent had a Merfolk lord, a True-Name Nemesis, and a couple of Silvergill Adepts. I was getting low on life, but I had my one-of Toxic Deluge in hand. It was literally my only out right now, as even if I drew a Golgari Charm it wouldn’t kill that Nemesis with the Lord of Atlantis on the table.
I have no clue if he had a counterspell since I hadn’t really done much to bait one. But I had to go for it.
"Toxic Deluge, paying two life?" I more asked than declared. I presumed it was not going to resolve.
"Submerge my True-Name Nemesis; it resolves."
I jumped straight out of the frying pan into the fire. My opponent had already revealed a Lord of Atlantis off of his Silvergill Adepts, and I knew he’d have the Nemesis and enough mana to cast both the next turn. I decided to cast the Shardless Agent in hand to see if I could get a Thoughtseize or Hymn to get rid of that Lord. I hit a Deathrite Shaman.
The next turn my opponent played the Nemesis. "It resolves." He tapped two mana. This is it; I’m done for.
"Phantasmal Image? Copy Shardless Agent. Cascade?"
Wait . . . no, that’s not how it works. He realized his folly and just cast an Umezawa’s Jitte and passed the turn. Part of me actually wished he would have cast it as a True-Name Nemesis since I drew the Golgari Charm. I cast Charm and passed the turn back.
My opponent equipped the Jitte to his Shardless Phantasmal Agent.
See? Just getting incredibly lucky to win.
My sixth round was the most intense round of Magic I’ve ever played. My first-round opponent had dropped at this point and was watching; when it ended, he breathed a sigh of relief and declared, "Whoa." That’s how intense it was.
And for the first time, I didn’t feel like I had to get lucky to win my round.
My opponent was playing the True-Name Bant deck; I won game 1 without seeing Knight of the Reliquary or True-Name Nemesis, but I knew what deck he was playing. I sided in my Nihil Spellbombs to try to control his Knights if I saw them. Game 2 he dominated me with two True-Name Nemesises. Time to go get those Golgari Charms.
Game 3 was a perfect example of something I both love and hate about Legacy. I felt irreparably far behind the entire game yet somehow won. This happened to me multiple times on the weekend.
My opponent got a turn 2 Knight active and played a natural Wasteland into a Knight activation for another. Just like that I was on the ropes. Maybe he ran out of Wastelands, but he attacked the next turn in my Nihil Spellbomb activation and soon thereafter my Ancestral Vision came off of suspend. My opponent cast a Stoneforge Mystic that I had to use my Abrupt Decay on instead of the Knight of the Reliquary since he was only on three mana sources.
My opponent played the Sword of Fire and Ice and got an activation from it. I cast a Baleful Strix and Decay the Sword on his next attack, killing the Knight with the block.
He cast True-Name Nemesis.
I cast Tarmogoyf.
It was a standstill.
It’s hard to remember the full sequence of events, but we went to time. On turn 3 of turns, I pulled the game out in which he had True-Name Nemesis active for at least five or six turns and a Scavenging Ooze to negate my Deathrite Shaman. Creeping Tar Pit is a helluva card. A truly incredible game that I wish was on camera so I could remember everything.
Round 7 was another Sneak and Show opponent. Game 1 he never did anything and died to a Creeping Tar Pit and Deathrite Shaman. Game 2 I Thoughtseized and Hymned him, but on the last turn before he died, he found enough fuel for a Show and Tell with Griselbrand in hand. It resolved.
He started taking huge chunks out of my life total, but my Tarmogoyf and Creeping Tar Pit kept him from getting a bunch of cards. However, I was pretty much dead on my next turn unless I peeled one of my three outs, two Liliana of the Veils and one Maelstrom Pulse.
I drew Liliana.
I cast Liliana.
He tanked for a while before realizing that even if he activated Griselbrand and found a Force of Will the life for Force plus Griselbrand would have killed him with my attack. He let it resolve. I won.
What a lucksack . . .
Variance factor: way up.
At this point I was 6-1. This is it, I thought as I sat down for round 8. If I win, I make my first Grand Prix day 2.
Yes, your esteemed writer has never made a day 2 of a Grand Prix. With kids and the life I have, I’ve actually only gotten to play in three total.
The nerves were there. Oddly enough, I’ve been in briefings in front of Congressmen, generals, commanders, and organizational leaders while in the Army. I’ve been in war and had explosives detonate within feet of me. I’ve been through the trials and tribulations of the military. I’ve jumped out of airplanes as a paratrooper in the Army.
And yet here I was playing a card game to make day 2, a rather insignificant accomplishment in the grand scheme of things, and nervous as ever.
I sat down, started shuffling, and made small talk with my opponent who was wearing a New England Patriots hat (I’m a Panthers fan, and we were playing on Monday night).
I forgot to write down my note to myself. For the first time since round 3, I didn’t tell myself to slow down, to think.
As my opponent cracked his fetch land to start the game, I went to record his life total change and realized my error. I tried to fix it by hurriedly writing to myself.
The round went to three games, with a precariously low amount of time going into game 3. My opponent requested that we try to play fast to actually determine a winner. I obliged, saying that I’d rather not draw. I shouldn’t have.
You see, playing fast is what I’d been trying to avoid all day because playing fast leads me to get ahead of myself. I think twenty plays ahead and forget what I decided to do two plays ahead. I Force of Will a Talisman of Dominance when I hear him say "Chalice for one" (Chalice of the Void) when he really said "Talisman"; I don’t look at the card until it’s too late. I play a second Tarmogoyf onto the board against his Tezzeret deck, trying to clock him, right into a Damnation (that I didn’t have the counter for due to my earlier misstep). I lost to the Sword of the Meek / Thopter Foundry combo.
See? You got what you deserved, scrub.
I’m dejected and upset at myself for allowing myself to be talked into playing in a way that I knew would be bad for me.
I sat down for the final round, the "win and in" round of the tournament. I slowly wrote, "Slow down. Relax. Think. No rush," on a completely different piece of paper in my pad than the life totals. I underlined each line. It calmed my nerves.
I was exhausted at this point. I’d been at the tournament hall for over thirteen hours without much to eat.
My opponent cracked his turn 1 foil Polluted Delta for a Beta Underground Sea and Thoughtseized me.
Great, a Legacy aficionado.
I misprioritized my spells in game 1 since I thought I was playing a mirror match. A late Delver of Secrets revealed the truth for sideboarding after the loss.
I brought in the Golgari Charms, sure that he was going to have True-Name Nemesis. I could feel the nerves rising; I could feel the self-doubt clouding over my thoughts.
I looked down at my life pad and slowly read my note. An incredibly calm, serene feeling came over me, as if to say, "It’s ok; even if you don’t make it, you did well."
F*** that . . . I didn’t come all this way to give in at this point.
I refused the calming feeling of surrender and the sweet release it provides.
Game 2 we got down to a board state where he had two True-Name Nemesises but only one could attack due to the possible counterattack from my huge Tarmogoyfs. Creeping Tar Pit was chiseling away at his life total, as was his one True-Name Nemesis on mine. I had two Ancestral Visions come off suspend in one turn when I was at eleven, but I failed to find a Charm or Toxic Deluge. I Brainstormed; still no dice, though I did get to shuffle away the excess lands.
My opponent attacked me down to eight and then played the third of his True-Name Nemesises. I was on a one-turn clock in game 2 of my win-and-in round and down a game already. No pressure.
I peeled the top card . . .
And slammed the Golgari Charm. (Well, cast it. In my mind I slammed it.) My opponent’s eyebrows raised, he binned his True Names, and I attacked him for the last four points of damage.
Game 3 I mulliganed a hand with a Bayou, Deathrite Shaman, and no way of drawing cards or shuffling into a hand with Bayou, Deathrite Shaman, and no way of drawing cards or shuffling. I kept, not wanting to go to five and hoping my opponent didn’t have a Wasteland or way to kill my Shaman (and a few fetch lands).
"Land, Thoughtseize you."
(Did I mention how much I hate that card?)
My opponent Thoughtseized me two more times, and I felt like I was done. I let that calm feeling wash back over me, and I didn’t fight it this time. In my mind I’d already lost.
But my opponent ended up playing the last card in his hand, a Vendilion Clique, on my draw step. I Brainstormed in response, putting back a Shardless Agent and Abrupt Decay and keeping Deathrite Shaman and Maelstrom Pulse. He selected the Deathrite Shaman, and I drew and cast Shardless Agent, cascading into the removal spell.
That calming feeling came crashing down as I realized I wasn’t out of it yet. You’d think this would be a positive feeling, but all of the nerves that come with caring about the outcome came crashing back. I rode that wave all the way until my opponent conceded.
I did it.
I made day 2. My good friend Justin Parnell was unbeknownst to me sitting there and patted me on the back, congratulating me. It meant a lot for him to be there to see it, especially since he had just lost his win-and-in match minutes before. You’ll get there man; you’re a better player than I am.
Rounds 10-15, Day 2: Do I Deserve This?
Driving back for day 2, I was more nervous than I was for the last round of day 1. Yes, I’d made day 2, but what if I did well? If I did well, they’d have me on camera eventually, and people could see the imposter masquerading as a competent Magic player.
I kid you not when I say that these things played out in my mind over and over again driving back on Sunday morning.
Sitting here typing I know that I’m a good Magic player. I know that if given time to actually test and work on a format, I believe that a day 2 in a Grand Prix is fully within my range, and I would even expect more. However, when the rubber meets the road, I always worry that I’m not good enough in others’ eyes. It shouldn’t matter as much as it does, but it’s almost debilitating.
I actually won the first two rounds of day 2 against Affinity (on a mulligan to four in game 2) and Sneak and Show (when his draws didn’t get there in game 3). More and more I got excited because I love success but nervous because success begets publicity and public recognition.
My single biggest fear in the world is public humiliation. Bar none, not close. It cripples me, and I knew that if I made it on camera the eyes of the world would be watching me, a Legacy novice, playing an incredibly intricate deck with a ton of decisions that could be made wrong. It worried me since the last time I was on camera at a Legacy event I mistook Engineered Explosives for Pernicious Deed and made plays accordingly, confusing the announcers and causing people to declare on Twitter the very things I think to myself when I’m in my worst moments of self-doubt.
I was worried that was going to happen again.
In round 12 at 9-2, I played against Nic-Fit Scapeshift with Veteran Explorer. Both games I ground him down and had lethal on board only to have his last card show itself to be the Burning Wish for Scapeshift to kill me. I actually felt I played close to perfectly and deserved to win, yet it didn’t happen.
My variance factor was finally "regressing to the mean."
I then played three straight RUG Delver opponents. My first three of the weekend. Having little Legacy experience definitely showed when I was outmaneuvered by my opponents in the close games. I told my friends that I lost each game three to hands from my opponents "that make you wonder how the deck ever loses a game." Blind Delver flips, multiple Wastelands and Stifles, etc. The variance needle reached equilibrium after round 15, with my well-timed rips of the earlier rounds now balanced out by my opponents’ good draws and awesome rips when I thought I was coming back. I can’t complain, as I was on the beneficial end of variance earlier.
See? You got what you deserved. You should know your place, Michael.
I’m my own worst enemy.
Sitting here now I know that my result based on my experience in Legacy and my preparation was awesome. I mean, I started out with no byes and no testing and made it to a 9-2 record before variance and lack of knowledge of the RUG Delver matchup caught up to me. Every time I’ve played Legacy, I’ve loved it and done well. I’ve been in the running for Top 8 late in almost every Legacy tournament I’ve ever attended.
And yet I never get to test much for the format.
I finally realized why that is. You see, my mind does in fact race at all times. It needs outlets for all of the thoughts that it comes up with; with Legacy Brainstorm decks, you have a ton of decisions to keep your mind occupied. I never feel like I’m sitting and waiting for the next time I have to make a decision. My mind was like a kid in a candy store this past weekend, happy that it had a chance to fully stretch out and operate. If you look at some of the decks I’ve had success with, you see a pattern:
RUG with Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Lotus Cobra (Standard)
U/R Splinter Twin (Standard and Modern)
Shardless BUG (Legacy)
Each of those has a ton of intricate decisions to be made on each turn that need to reconsidered every time new information presents itself. I’ve realized what kind of decks I should be playing.
So as I’m writing this, I’m planning to travel to Virginia Beach, Virginia to play in the StarCityGames.com Classic Series happening there. I’m trying a deck that I think gives me the chance to wrap my mind up in decisions, and I hope I can regale you next week with stories of my win.
And hopefully I can take another step towards finally believing completely in myself. It’s been a long process—one that’s still on-going—but I’m trying.
Thanks for reading; writing this was cathartic for me. I’ll see all of you next week.
@mikemartinlfs on Twitter
mikemartinlfs (at) gmail (dot) com
P.S. I forgot to add that the awesomeness that is Legacy has finally convinced me to fully buy back into the format. It’ll take some time, but I plan on putting any extra funds I can muster into building a Legacy collection that doesn’t require me to borrow heavily from Kenny Mayer. This will take time; luckily, Legacy isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
P.P.S. I truly felt that I learned a lot about Shardless BUG over the weekend. If you plan on running the deck and want a list, here’s what I’d run right now if I had a Legacy event tomorrow: