Levelling Up – Five Unforgettable Matches

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Tiago Chan, Level 6 Mage and one of Portugal’s finest, has had many ups and downs in his successful Magic career. Today’s Levelling Up sees Mr Chan in a reflective mood… he looks back at five of the most important matches he’s played, and shares how they molded his career and outlook on the game we all love. Who knows, maybe his insights will help us in our own quest to level up…

There are certain Magic matches we remember longer than others. Perhaps you pulled out a miraculous victory, or you won your first tournament, or you took such a beating that it taught you a valuable lesson. These games mark us, and set the course of our Magic careers, yet sometimes they’re decided by something tiny like a die roll or a fortunate pairing. Today, I’ll be sharing five Magic matches that were some of the most intense, important, and career-defining I’ve played. I’ll be sharing what I learned, and how they affected my life.

“A Daunting Task” — GP: Lisbon 2002

I started Grand Prix: Lisbon 2002 going X-0 on Day 1. This was the first of many such records, though this time I only had the help of a single bye to get there, thanks to a disastrous performance at the previous Constructed Pro Tour where I went 0-3. I was playing Super-Grow, a U/G/W deck with Quirion Dryad, Werebear, and Mystic Enforcer, with many cheap cantrip spells like Brainstorm, Sleight of Hand, and Gush. Day 1 seemed so easy… the deck operated perfectly, and my opponents rarely had the solutions for it. As soon as Day 2 began, the deck seemed defective, and my opponents always topdecked many answers in a row to steal the wins. I started with two losses and a draw, putting my back against the wall. I managed to win a couple more rounds, and needed to win the last one to make Top 8. At the previous GP in Portugal I found myself in the same “win and in” situation. I lost that time, and I wanted to correct that now.

I was optimistic about my chances. I could be paired against Sligh, a good matchup (I was 3-1 against Sligh at the GP). I could be paired against Three Deuce or PT Junk, both favorable matchups (I was undefeated versus those decks). I could be paired in a mirror match, which was 50/50. But I was paired against my worst matchup, Oath of Druids. Since the matchup was already bad, and since I knew the Portuguese metagame very well, and since I had only one bye, I’d tuned my deck to beat other aggro decks (especially Sligh) with the inclusion of four Swords to Plowshares, Wild Mongrel and multiple Mystic Enforcers. I didn’t have Meddling Mages or Hidden Gibbons in the sideboard.

When I was checking the pairings, my good friend and mentor Helder Coelho, winner of the previous Grand Prix: Lisbon in 99, took me aside. He was playing the same deck as me, and even though all his losses in the tournament had been to Oath, he told me I could win my match. I just had to visualize how I was going to do it. He advised me not to board out all the Swords to Plowshares. The plan would be to gather a striking team on the table, and then end of his turn Swords the Spike Weaver and attack for the win.

By the way, I was not only playing my worst matchup, but I was also against the best player in the world… Kai Budde.

Kai had just won his 5th Pro Tour, New Orleans 01, which led to Randy Buehler recognizing him as the best player in the history of Magic. I only had five PT appearances, one for each of his PT wins, but I went to battle anyway.

Kai started with two Wastelands, keeping me stuck at one mana. Super Grow played between 12 and 14 lands plus 4 Land Grant. He played Oath of Druids. I tried to Force of Will, but he had one of his own. It wasn’t looking good, with just one land and already facing Oath of Druids. When I found a land, I played Winter Orb. The game stalled for a while, and I tried to work my way around Oath of Druids. Eventually I played a Werebear. Kai Oathed and got a Morphling, and played a Powder Keg, which once set at two could destroy my Bear and Winter Orb. Since he only had one Blue untapped, I used two Swords to get Morphling out of the game.

Later I played a Quirion Dryad to force Kai to break his Powder Keg, getting my two creatures and the Winter Orb. Without the Keg, I played another Orb to keep his mana controlled, and forced some Enforcers into play thanks to Dazes and Force of Wills. There was one turn where I had a window to win, where his Oath would not bring Spike Weaver since it was in his graveyard, but he played a second Oath. The first activation shuffled it, and the second got it into play. Facing two Oath, and having lost my opportunity, I conceded.

In the second game I played creatures, and Kai was countering them or playing Swords to Plowshares. He did not have Green mana to play Oath, and I had a Seal of Cleansing in my hand, so I fought for the creatures. When he drew Green mana, down came the Oath as expected. I used Seal on it, but he followed it with two more. I tried a Phyrexian Furnace to stop the Oathing. We fought for it, but he won. Against two active Oaths, there was no way I could get it through, and game 2 ended in a draw.

I remember this game, because I was battling for a GP Top 8 during the whole second day, peaking in Round 14 against Kai. I remember it because it was intense and exhausting, against my worst matchup, and obviously against Kai, the player I admired the most when I was starting out.

“Always Believe” – Portuguese Nationals 2002, Quarter Finals

This Quarter Finals match was worth a slot to Worlds in Australia. The weeks before Nats, Devir (the Portuguese Distributor) promised to pay the air-fare for the National Team, but as a consequence they needed to save money. They organized Nats in the basement of the local store in Lisbon. No spectators were allowed because there was simply no space for them to move inside the area. Even for competitors and judges only, the place was overcrowded. We had to draft and register our decks on the same tables we played. But at least there was a big prize on the line.

I was playing Blue/White/Red Counter Trenches deck, against Andre Cunha, a young and upcoming player from Massama, an area in the suburbs of Lisbon known to have a very strong Magic community. He was playing Green/Black Good Stuff deck, and he had a 1-0 lead thanks to a Squirrel Nest to which I had no answer. An extinct Portuguese website did the coverage, which I will now translate for you.

Chan leads with Island, and once again Andre opens with Forest into Birds.

Chan plays Shivan Reef and decides not to play Fire on the Bird.

Andre plays Duress, taking out Fire/Ice, and plays Wild Mongrel.

On the next turn, the Mongrel attacks (20-18) and Andre plays Call of the Herd, which resolves.

The reason is simple: Chan taps his four lands, taking one damage for Red, and plays Flametongue Kavu on the Elephant. (20-17)

Andre attacks with Mongrel, Chan blocks with Flametongue, and both die. Chan is tapped out, so Andre summons the mighty Spiritmonger.

Chan’s hand is two Absorb, one Rage, one Trenches. Not exactly the best hand against a Spiritmonger. Chan does the only thing he can and plays Trenches, taking two damage from the lands (20-15)

Andre attacks with the monster and flashes back the Call. (20-9)

Against the Spiritmonger and the Elephant, Chan needs Wrath of God, but draws Coastal Tower.

Andre attacks with both creatures. Chan plays Urza’s Rage on the Elephant, taking one damage from Forge[/author]“]Battlefield [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author], and takes from the Spiritmonger (20-2). End of turn, he makes two goblins.

Chan draws land, and facing only a Spiritmonger tries to race, attacking with both Goblins. (18-2)

Andre attacks with Spiritmonger. Chan makes two goblins and chumps with one. Andre plays Call of the Herd, and Chan plays Absorb (18-5). With the remaining two mana, Andre plays Wild Mongrel.

Chan draws Meddling Mage and plays it, naming Call of the Herd.

Andre attacks with Spiritmonger and Mongrel. Chan makes two more goblins, and blocks Spiritmonger with one, and Mongrel with Meddling Mage plus four goblins. When the dust has set, the Spiritmonger plus three goblins remain. Andre plays Haunting Echoes. The spell removes Urza’s Rage, Absorb, Flametongue Kavu, Meddling Mage, and Fire/Ice. On the other hand, it puts Chan closer to the Wrath. Will it be coming, or was this the final nail in the coffin?

Chan is holding just one Absorb and draws Counterspell. He attacks with the three Goblins. (15-5)

Spiritmonger attacks, so Chan makes two more goblins and blocks with one. Andre plays a second Spiritmonger, but Chan has Counterspell.

Chan attacks with just two Goblins (13-5)

Andre attacks with Spiritmonger, and Chan blocks with a goblin.

Chan draws… Wrath of God. Still on time to get rid of the 10/10 Spiritmonger. However, he only has three lands. Struggling for survival, lands were turned into goblins. Chan keeps his Goblins on defense.

Andre attacks, and one goblin dies. He tries Call of the Herd, but Chan Absorbs it (15-8)

On his upkeep, Chan’s situation is: two Islands, one Coastal Tower, one Goblin Trenches, two goblin tokens. Holding just a Wrath of God. Desperate?

Chan draws – or better said, topdecks – Repulse. This gives him the confidence that he can turn the game around. He attacks with both goblins (11-8), and plays Repulse on his turn, searching for a land. And he draws Coastal Tower. The fourth land, and the second White mana source. How lucky.

Andre re-plays the same Spiritmonger and passes.

Chan untaps his four lands, and draws Fact or Fiction. He’s definitely back in business. He has to choose between Wrathing right away, or hoping that Andre doesn’t play another Duress and hold onto the Wrath a little longer to play end of turn Fact or Fiction. Feeling confident, Chan opts for the second choice, and passes.

Andre attacks with Spiritmonger, which is blocked. End of turn, Chan plays Fact or Fiction and picks two lands plus Aura Blast over two lands.

Chan draws Fact or Fiction, plays a land, and passes.

Andre attacks with Spiritmonger, which crashes into the last Goblin token. End of turn, Chan plays Fact or Fiction again. Andre splits into Wrath or four lands. Chan picks the four lands, and Wraths on his turn.

Andre plays another Spiritmonger. End of turn, Chan makes two goblins.

Chan plays land and says go.

Andre attacks with Spiritmonger, and history repeats itself once again. Andre plays Braids, Cabal Minion. End of turn, Chan makes four goblins.

Chan sacs a goblin to Braids and passes.

Andre sacs land to Braids and plays Call of the Herd plus the Flashback. End of turn, Chan makes two more Goblins.

Chan is holding three lands, 2 Aura Blast, and 1 Repulse. He sacs a Goblin to Braids and passes.

Andre sacs a land to Braids and attacks with Spiritmonger and two Elephants. Chan blocks one elephant with three goblins, and the Spiritmonger with another one. (11-5). End of turn he Repulses the remaining elephant, and makes two more tokens.

Over the next three or four turns, they both enter auto pilot mode.

Chan sacs one goblin to Braids, plays a land, and says go.

Andre sacs a land to Braids, attacks with Spiritmonger, which is blocked by the other goblin. End of turn, two goblins come into play.

After a while, Chan plays his third Fact or Fiction, keeping Prophetic Bolt and land.

Chan sacrifices a goblin to Braids and says go.

Andre sacs land to Braids and attacks. Chan Repulses the Spiritmonger, keeping two Islands untapped. Andre responds with Beast Attack. Chan counters. The Spiritmonger goes back to hand, but with the sacrifices made to Braids, Andre doesn’t have the mana to replay it.

Chan sacrifices a goblin to Braids and says go.

On his turn, Andre has just five lands, so he has to let Braids go, and sacs it. He passes. End of turn, Chan plays Prophetic Bolt targeting Andre. He responds by flashbacking Beast Attack, but Chan counters. Bolt resolves. (7-5).

Chan plays land and passes.

Andre, with six mana, plays Duress on Chan and removes his sole counter. Plays Spiritmonger. End of turn, Chan makes eight goblins.

Chan attacks with all eight goblins. Andre, at seven life, has only one Spiritmonger. As the old saying goes… it’s big, but it’s not two. Game over.

This was the most emotive game I’ve ever played, and I probably made a few mistakes… it was five years ago. I’ll always remember it, because at some points it looked really bad for me, and this win propelled me on to win game 3 where I dominated the game. It put me on the 2002 National Team, and created some myths about my play skills, helping me establish my reputation as one of the best in my country. Andre’s friends, in a sign of respect, made a banner for the rest of Nationals that said “Chan is God,” due to my spectacular comeback.

I also won’t forget that Devir backed down on their word and refused to pay for the flights of the National Team. After playing Nats in the worst conditions possible to save money for the Team, they said Australia was too expensive. I was in the early years of my career, very Magic-hungry, so the rest of the team and myself (except the Champion, who had his stuff paid) engaged in a series of money-raising activities. We organized unsanctioned tournaments with the help of some local TOs. We survived on the generosity of other players and private Magic institutions. The other two team members decided to quit and skip Worlds, and awarded me all the money. It wasn’t enough for the plane ticket, but it helped. The downside was that the Champ and I weren’t allowed to play the Team competition, in which we arguably had one of the strongest teams ever: Helder Coelho, Kuniyoshi Ishii, and myself.

“For The Win” – Portuguese Nationals 2003, Quarterfinals

After my moment of glory at the previous Nats, I finished in the Top 64 of Worlds despite having lost my two last rounds. During the next season, I had won PTQs and attended PTs in Houston, Chicago, and Venice, where the highlight was a 39th place finish at Chicago. In the local scene, I was being quite dominating… not only at the PTQs, but pretty much in every tournament I was playing. I was playing the best Magic of my career. With Nationals approaching, every single preview article had my name first on the list – “19-year-old Tiago Chan” – over all the other established top Portuguese players.

At Nats, I didn’t disappoint. With an 8-2-2 score being required in order to make Top 8, I locked my Top 8 berth during the morning of Day 2 by starting 8-0. I then conceded to my friend Pedro Bailadeira, the sole 7-1 player. Then we ID. Then I ID with someone else, and in the last round I conceded to my friend Ricardo Duarte. In the Top 8, the brackets were… on one side, three Red/Green aggro decks and the eventual finalist Rodrigo Caseiro playing Astral Slide. Rodrigo swept the quarters and the semis, while the other bracket was still in the quarters. In the other bracket, Pedro Bailadeira and I, playing identical Psychatog lists, were both facing Green/Black Oversold Cemetery decks.

I was once again playing for qualification to Worlds, but later I realized the match was worth a lot more. I lost the first game. I managed to tie it at 1-1 thanks to a poor draw he decided to keep. Two Swamps, Cabal Therapy, Oversold Cemetery, and Green cards. In the third game, I’m once again falling behind, until I pulled the magic combo of floating nine mana and playing Upheaval, keeping three mana. He floated just two mana. I played Island and Psychatog. He cast Smother on it. I Force Spiked it, but I also had the Logic if he had floated more mana. He replayed Forest and Birds.

I attacked with Tog. He thought for a while. He counted the cards, and the Tog was capable of dealing nineteen-point-five damage. He was at twenty. He said no blocks. I smiled and confirmed his math. Nineteen-point-five. But I cycled a Lonely Sandbar… for the win! He said that if he’d survived and untapped, then he would still have the Bird and had ways to deal with the Tog in the next turns. I don’t remember exactly how, but it was true.

The Lonely Sandbar was worth a lot more. It was worth a national title. In the semis, my friend Pedro Bailadeira conceded to me, and I advanced immediately to the final. An impossible matchup for him. Astral Slide versus Tog. I just countered Astral Slide and played Upheaval / Tog twice. It was that simple. Pedro Bailadeira said his goal was just to qualify for Worlds, and there was no difference between being the Champ or not, so he basically offered me the national championship title. In fact, I won Nats… and picked up a T-shirt and a handshake, plus the plane tickets to Berlin for the National Team. No money, not even a trophy. Besides, Pedro stated I had conceded to put him in the Top 8.

Quite recently, I was with his brother, and he told me what Pedro confessed at the time. Pedro thought I deserved to be national champion, because of the Magic I was playing that season, and for what I fought for the National Team last year. From that weekend on, it was no longer a theory from the preview articles. It became official: I was Portugal’s best player, a title I carried for the next few years until, in 2005, a new generation of kids rose up and put Portugal on the Pro Tour scene.

That day I may have returned home empty-handed, but I felt a sense of pride and accomplishment. It’s the same feeling I’ll get the day I finally make Top 8 at a GP. All thanks to a cycled Lonely Sandbar.

“The Importance of Going First” — PT: Honolulu 2006

Going into PT: Honolulu I was already a Level 3 player for the foreseeable future, and very happy. It wasn’t one of my goals to Top 8 a Pro Tour, but that somehow happened. I choose to play a risky Owling Mine deck, which was good against control decks but really awful against Red decks. A draw in the first day guaranteed I didn’t face any Red deck on the second day, going six wins and a draw into the last round. The math was simple. Win that last round and I would advance to my first Top 8. My opponent was German player Michael Diezel, playing an innovative Orzhov deck featuring Nantuko Husk and Promise of Bunrei.

I won the die roll. I started with two Boomerangs and one Eye of Nowhere on his first land. That prevented him from playing any spell in the first turns. It forced him to discard a couple of times. When the bounce spells were gone, I had four lands to my opponent’s one. I played Howling Mine and kept two open to Remand his two-mana spell. Then I played Exhaustion. We drew too many cards. I played Ebony Owl Netsuke, and he barely played a threat before dying. I would’ve probably lost the game if I’d lost the die roll.

In the second game, I couldn’t control the permanents on the table, but with two Howling Mines and a Kami of Crescent Moon we were drawing lots of cards. One turn I tapped out to play something. He dropped Hokori. I untapped a single land, and I needed to draw an Island in the four cards I was drawing to Boomerang the Hokori on his turn so that I could untap. I drew it, so when he attacked, I took from the Promise of Bunrei tokens, chump-blocked the Husk, and bounced Hokori, staying at one life. I untapped all my lands and I won, making my first Pro Tour Top 8. It was a risky bet that paid off, playing Owling Mine, but I also had the luck to win the die roll in the decisive round. On the other hand, if Michael Diezel could choose to change one thing in his Magic career, that die roll is probably very high on his list.

“The Importance of Playtesting and the Sideboard” – Worlds 2006, Quarterfinals

At Worlds 2006 I was facing a really tough, nearly impossible quarterfinal matchup. I was playing Angelfire – a deck that has risen in popularity once again with Tenth Edition – against U/W Martyr recursion, which could gain a huge amount of life each turn. I had no answer to disrupt the combo. To make things worse, thanks to my roommates and other people in other rooms, we had been kicked out of our hotel on that very same day. I was carrying all my bags with me, with no place to stay, when they announced Top 8 and started the Top 8 photos and interviews.

I was very upset with the whole hotel incident, and really wanted to go back home immediately. Plus I didn’t like my chances at all in the quarterfinals. I was reacting without thinking. Many people offered me a place to stay, including my quarterfinal opponent Gabriel Nassif, who lives in Paris. The next day was the team competition, and I got the help of many friends who helped me prepare the matchup. The helped with strategies and sideboard plans, and spent hours with me playing the matchup.

The quarterfinal match lasted for over three hours. As expected, I lost the first, but after sideboarding the matchup become a little better, though still bad. I managed to steal game 2 thanks to multiple Annexes. I got game 3, attacking with 30 or 40 Pegasus tokens, thanks to some unfortunate draws from Gab. I was holding a 2-1 lead in a matchup in which I had almost no chance, thanks to sideboard games and productive playtesting sessions that lasted an entire day.

I almost got game 4, which would’ve sealed the match in my favor, as Gab was slightly color screwed, but he managed to slowly recover and tie the match at 2-2. Unfortunately, the fifth game was always out of my reach, from the first turn to the one where I scooped. I was expecting to arrive there and lose 3-0 or 3-1, and almost came away with the win.

I’ll always remember the match, because it not only took more than three hours under some very hot lights, but because it was also very intense, and I almost won after I considered giving up. It made me even more aware of the importance of sideboarded games, good playtest partners, and game plan strategies. I lost the match, but I felt a winner when I left for the airport.

Even last week, I dismissed one of my friends from my playtest group for PT: Valencia. This is now reduced to two people: a friend and me. I asked him to build a certain deck so we could try a certain matchup. He did it. We played around ten games. I told him I already understood how the matchup worked, and I wanted to try sideboarded. He didn’t have a sideboard, even a sketchy one. He tried to argue that sideboarded games were useless, since you don’t know what sideboard cards your opponent will have, or what sideboard cards you will have on the day of the Pro Tour. During an intense debate, where I tried to convince him that sideboard games were always a profit and a must, I understood that he was just too lazy to care about sideboards. He wanted to play Magic… he didn’t want to playtest Magic.

And there you have it! Five games that marked me and set the course of who would I become. Some taught me great lessons. Some showed me the importance of things like playtesting and sideboarding, or subtle things like a die roll. They’re some of the greatest stories of my Magic life, and they inspire me to improve and to recognize the importance of all elements. I hope you found them inspiring in your quest to Level Up, and that you take a moment to think of your most memorable Magic games.

Thank you for reading,