Levelling Up – Stories and Strategy from Grand Prix: Florence

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In Block Constructed’s last hurrah, Tiago Chan stuck with the tried and true: Blue/Black Teachings. He placed a creditable 46th, and recounts his performance here. But this is not your run-of-the-mill report, dear me no. It’s packed with strategic insights and laugh-out-loud stories. The format may be finished, but the memories will linger long… enjoy!

Story: “Back to Florence”

In the distant past of 2000 (Magically-speaking), I faced the first trigger that would change my Magic career forever. At GP: Porto, in my home country, I lost the final swiss round to Antoine Ruel, and finished 10th. At that point I had played in the current year’s World Championships, and the Top 16 qualified me for the next Pro Tour, in LA (2001). But I promised I would avenge that final round loss, and that I would one day Top 8 a GP. After all, complaining will do nothing to improve your current situation. Instead, you need to do something about it. GP: Florence 2000 was the next on the schedule, and it was my first step to fulfilling my goal… the first step of a Road Warrior.

Due to some GP Trials that offered the plane ticket to the winner, there were many Portuguese players interested and planning to attend the GP, so we managed to put together a large group. That was very important for me, and it shaped my decision to attend. I played a homebrew deck – Green/Red almost aggro, with Survival of the Fittest, Stormbind, Squee, Blastoderms, and maindeck Pyroclasm. I’ll never forget GP: Florence, as I made Day 2 in 64th place. All my future visits to Italian Grand Prix tournaments have been quite rewarding, as I reached 20 Pro Points at GP: Bologna 2005, and finished in the Top 32 of GP: Torino 2006.

Not only have I achieved good results at the tournaments, but Italy is also my favorite European country to visit. You can always find beautiful places to sightsee, nice weather, great food, and genuinely nice people to welcome you. Like I always say, it’s the same as Portugal but exaggerated, both in the good and the bad things. I was very excited about returning to Florence, where it all began.

Strategy: “The Block Has Come Full Circle”

At the beginning, Blue/Black Control was the best deck. Since then, many new decks have emerged, others have risen, and at some point or another they were crowned the best decks in the metagame, from U/G to G/W Goyf, from Mono-Blue to Predator-Justice. Blue/Black still remained one of the top choices, and it ended the season once again on the top. This meant that some powerful cards that were seen as unplayable just a while ago were once again being used, like Detritivore, Aeon Chronicler, and as a consequence, Pull from Eternity.

The Blue/Black Teachings version I played in the first Block Constructed Grand Prix of the season – GP: Strasbourg, still without Future Sight – played two main deck Aeon Chroniclers and one Pull from Eternity. At the time, it was quite common for the Blue/Black decks to have many copies of Detritivore in the sideboard, making the second and third game a guessing game or a dance between suspend creatures and Pull. For that GP, Frank Karsten and I decided to cut the Red from the deck since it was too slow and not too reliable, and add Plague Slivers in the sideboard for the mirror, expecting our opponents to have many Pulls and few Damnations. The Chroniclers were played like Blue Maros instead of card drawing, therefore making their Pull from Eternity useless.

Before trying to put these ideas together, I thought about playing Mono-Red in Florence. I played several times against the deck at various Grand Prix tourneys and couldn’t get a single win. Two draws was the best I could get. Everyone I talked to agreed that Mono-Red was the worst matchup for Blue/Black. I put together a version where all creatures had either haste or a “comes into play” effect, because Blue/Black didn’t run countermagic and it relied on removal to deal with creatures. If the creatures manage to connect (due to haste), or provide an effect before dying, then killing them is a necessity but not a gain for the control deck.

My version was more like a Big Red deck. It had 25 lands, 4 Greater Gargadon, 4 Tarmogoyf, 4 Tarox Bladewing, 4 Avalanche Riders, 4 Mogg War Marshal, 3 Sulfur Elemental and the usual burn spells. Like I expected, it was winning against Blue/Black and losing versus Tarmogoyf decks. Since everyone else was busy playtesting for Nationals, I found myself working alone, and couldn’t settle on a Mono-Red list I liked. If anyone before the Grand Prix had presented me a good Mono-Red list, I would’ve taken it with both hands… but that didn’t happen, so I shifted myself back to Blue/Black (a deck with which I had lots of experience, and I knew how to adjust).

Story: “Hotel Troubles”

Some of you might remember that at Worlds 2006 in Paris we were physically attacked and kicked out of our hotel rooms. To quickly recap that, the Portuguese National Team (plus the two Portuguese coverage guys) had two triple rooms at a small residence near the Worlds site, so two other friends and I booked another triple room at the same hotel. One of the guys in the National Team room snored very loudly, so his two roommates knocked at my door during the night, asking me to sleep on my floor, as they couldn’t get any sleep with the snoring. In the morning, the hotel staff found all those bodies in my room, and threw us out.

In Florence, I was going to room with three of my friends, all of whom were also at the hotel in Paris, so I was a little worried about what could happen. While I was in San Francisco, one of the guys seemed to have planned it all for us. Apparently he knew an Italian businessman who was living in Portugal, whose ex-wife and family lived in Florence, quite close to the site. Yeah, sure. This happens to me all the time. Everyone has friends or relatives in the city where the GP is being held, but then we get there and it’s not so close sometimes, nor even in the same city. We asked our friend for the address in order to confirm the real distance to the venue, but our friend was too lazy to check with the Italian businessman, so we didn’t even knew where were we staying. We didn’t know if it was his empty house, his ex-wife’s house, a relative’s house, or how much space we would have, because our friend was too lazy to ask. The Italian man just said, “I’ll find a place to the four of you.”

Now for the funny part…

The Italian businessman is banned from returning to Italy for reasons unknown to us. My friend lent him a large amount of money to start a business, which he should have (but still hasn’t) paid back. Somewhere in the region of 25000 euros. When my friend met with the Italian the morning before we left to Florence, in order to pick up the address of where we were staying, the Italian man said farewell in a very Italian way, with two kisses on the cheeks and two strong hugs.

Maybe I’ve been watching too many Italian mafia movies, but the truth is, we were going to Italy totally in the dark, clueless about where we were staying, in the hands of an Italian businessman who owes one of us a lot of money…

Since I lived to tell the tale, you can guess nothing happened. We arrived at the address, and it was a small hotel. The ex-wife of the Italian man owned a laundry store in front of it, so she got us a room for our stay. And it was perfect for our needs, one of the most comfortable public places I’ve stayed. The room was like a suite, with two small rooms, one small kitchenette, a living room, and a bathroom.

Strategy: “Building Blue/Black… Again”

For Grand Prix: San Francisco I re-built a version of Blue/Black with Voids, by myself, which ended up being quite similar to the one LSV, Cheon and PV used to make Top 8. This time I had a little more input, since two of the Portuguese rooming with me were also playing Blue/Black, plus I received some advice from the Americans themselves who would not be attending GP: Florence. Plus, the man I believe to be the most intelligent Magic player of the current crop was attending Florence playing the same deck I was, unlike San Francisco, which he skipped. After listening to many great minds thrashing out ideas, and also adding some ideas of my own, here’s the conclusions I reached.

I didn’t like Bogardan Hellkite, Teferi, and (as a consequence) the lone copy of Detritivore, and the third Teachings in the Americans list.
I wanted to play one maindeck Pull, as it’s good in the mirror, and versus any deck with Cloudskates or Gargadons.
I wanted to play two maindeck Academy Ruins.
I still liked the Aeon Chroniclers. Against decks with Riftsweeper you either play them face up, or you first play Void for two and then suspend it. It’s also quite decent to suspend an early Chronicler for one, as a big threat and card advantage, sometimes threatening to go the distance.
My plan was to win the traditional attrition battles in game 1, with the suspend spells, and one maindeck Pull, and both Chroniclers and Detritivores, and also the Factory and Ruins battle. After sideboard, remove the suspend creatures but keep the Pulls, and bring in Plague Sliver. Frank Karsten made me reconsider and changed the Plague Slivers last minute into Shimian Specters.

The decklist I played:

Unlike GP: San Francisco, this time I was quite happy with my final decklist, and I had a better idea of what decks to expect.

Story: “My Favorite Portuguese Magic Player”

Why is Frederico Costa my favorite Portuguese Magic player? Better yet, who the hell is Frederico Costa? He is very funny, very stubborn, very laid back. He’s an average Magic player, he has a twin brother, and he teamed for 2HG at San Diego with Paulo Carvalho. Let me give you an example of his coolness, with two situations related to Grand Prix: Florence.

For Grand Prix: San Francisco, I had borrowed an entire deck from a friend at a PTQ, and then made the changes I wanted. When I returned from San Francisco, my friend called me telling me Frederico Costa had requested the deck to play in Florence. One fine morning we all got together, and I returned the deck to the owner, which in turn he intended to hand over to Frederico Costa. But Frederico refused to take the whole deck: he just wanted some cards he was missing, despite the owner insisting it was easier if he took the whole deck and then return it back. Frederico stated he only wanted to take to Florence the exact 60 cards plus sideboard he was going to play, not a single card more. So he did. Of course, the minute he stepped on the plane he realized he wanted to make some changes to the deck, so he spent the day before the GP bothering anyone to find spare cards.

Secondly, Frederico Costa was the friend of the Italian businessman, so he obviously couldn’t care less about where we were staying. His plan involved seeing the Italian man the morning before catching the plane, and asking him for details. To make things worse, we were flying with different itineraries, and arriving at very different times. His estimated arrival time was 9:30pm, while mine was in the afternoon. The following conversation occurred the night before.

Me: What is the plan for tomorrow?
Him: I’ll meet with the Italian in the morning and will ask him for the address.
Me: Can you ask him now?
Him: No. I’ll ask him tomorrow morning.
Me: But I’m leaving before you, so how will you tell me where shall we meet in Florence?
Him: Wait for me at the GP site at midnight.
Me: Midnight?
Him: Yeah… I land at 9:30 pm, I should be able to be at the site come midnight.
Me: Why don’t you call me when you land?
Him: I’m not taking my phone with me.
Me: Why not?
Him: Because I don’t want to take it.
Me: Because that would be an extra weight, just like the extra cards for the deck?
Him: Exactly.
Me: You’re not making things easier for me, my friend…

At 10pm I had the brilliant idea of calling the Paulo Carvalho’s cellphone, as he was traveling with Frederico Costa. They text messaged me the address where we were staying, and told me it was really close to the train station where I was at the moment.

Frederico Costa: It’s close to the train station, just ask for directions and you’ll make it.
Me: Where are you?
Him: In a taxi from Florence airport to that address.
Me: If it’s really close can you ask the taxi driver to stop by the train station so that you can pick me up? It’s kind of late, there aren’t many people to ask for directions, and I have the bags.
Him: I don’t know if it’s on the way.
Me: Just ask. Even if it’s not, please pick me at the train station.
Him: We’ll meet at the address. Whoever gets there first, waits. Ciao. (hangs up)

After many tries, and what now I know to be wrong turns, I made it to the address almost half an hour later. I called them again.

Me: How come you still haven’t arrived?
Him: We have. We already dumped our bags there, and went looking for you at the train station.
Me: That’s not what we planned.
Him: You said you wanted us to pick you here.
Me: Whatever, just return here, because I’m standing on the street with the bags.

Half an hour later, there was no sign of them, and I decided to call again, since I took half an hour to arrive there from the train station but I was carrying the bags and had to ask the way multiple times.

Me: Where are you?
Him: Somewhere in Florence.
Me. What are you doing?
Him: Trying to find the way back.
Me: If you made it from here to the train station, how come you can’t make it back?
Him: I tried a different way back and got lost.
Me: Ask someone for directions.
Him: I already did that. They told me to turn right. I had the feeling the old man was lying, so I turned left.

After a while, Frederico Costa and a very angry Paulo Carvalho finally met up with me.

Ladies and gentlemen, Frederico Costa.

Strategy: “GP: Florence Day 1”

Round 4: U/G with Cancels and Ancestral Visions

The first game dragged for a while and wasn’t looking very good for me, since he countered some of my mass removal spells, but I managed to come back with a well timed Tendrils of Corruption regaining much of my life, and then with Urza’s Factory. At this points he was out of gas, and kept drawing lands or Ancestral Visions which allowed me to take control of the game, something I wouldn’t have believed possible a couple of turns before. With not much time left on the clock, I side in more removal to stay alive, but when time is called, I have clearly the game under control. I’m fine with a 1-0 win though.


Round 5: Mono Blue Pickles

Game 1 he gets a Game Loss for showing up several minutes late.

Game 2 I tap for a Careful Consideration when he has 5 lands and one morph. He played a sixth land and Walk the Aeons. Then he played a seventh land and unmorphed Brine Elemental. Then he showed Vesuvan Shapeshifter, and I conceded.

Game 3 I suspend Chronicler for one on my turn 4 and attacked him twice for 6 or 7. After a while he’s forced to chump-block. I played cautiously, so not to get caught with Brine, but his morph is only a Willbender and I win on the back of the Chronicler.


Round 6: Predator/Justice

Game 1 is really good for me. With previous versions, after sideboarding is also good for me, but now they’ve evolved and have better cards for this matchup. The first is not even close, as he had a very slow start, and I played two Damnations, later resolving Haunting Hymn.

Game 2 he destroyed me with multiple copies of Boom/Bust targeting my land and one of his Flagstones, or Expanse plus multiple Avalanche Riders.

Time is called during game 3. I do some math, and if I had two more turns I would win, since I had decent attack power in the form of Chronicler and Shapeshifter. Since I couldn’t make it, I played it safe and used Damnation in the extra turns to stay alive, ensuring a draw.


Round 7: Reanimator Classic

In my head, I made this deck a long time ago, and even wrote an article about it. I’m talking about the version with many Looters and Psychotic Episodes, exactly like the one my opponent was running. Luckily I know how to play against it, and how the deck performs. Game 1 he’s really mana screwed. Game 2 I’m really mana screwed.

Game 3 we both get regular draws. He dumps some creatures in the graveyard, and tries to reanimate them several times. The first attempt I counter, the second I play Void for eight to destroy the Hellkite and see his hand holds nothing. He still has a Phyrexian Totem in play, against my Shadowmage Infiltrator. He draws Psychotic Episode and plays it. I respond with Pact of Negation, I don’t want him to see my hand, nor the top card of my deck. He attacks with Phyrexian Totem, and I play Tendrils for all his permanents in play, getting his concession.


Round 8: Blue/Black mirror

Game 1 he gained an upper hand when he played Haunting Hymn with Pact backup (that he tutored for). I had no defense and lost four cards, but kept a Detritivore, which set him back on the lands for a while, enough for me to gain mana advantage that led me into producing Factory tokens and attacking his life total. I played very aggressively with the Tokens and managed to win.

Game 2 was very long, I managed to redirect his Hymn back to him with Imp’s Mischief, but at some point my life total was a mere three, even though I had a small Factory advantage. After many repetitive turns of Factory action, he tried for Teferi end of turn. I had Tendrils and Pact of Negation. I used Tendrils on one of his creatures, regaining ten life when it resolved. I used the Pact on the Teferi, and with only minutes remaining, he conceded.


Round 9: Feature match versus Julien Nuijten, Blue/Black mirror

For Julien it was his third mirror match. For me, I have been playing the deck since March, playing occasional mirrors whenever I had the opportunity – but more importantly, in four Grand Prix tournaments. I had never lost a mirror match. Every time I played the mirror, I won (except one time at Strasbourg versus Will Cavaglieri where we drew, although he was running a version more like Pickles, before Future Sight).

In game 1, due to Voids and Hymns, we’re both down to nothing in our hands. I had a Triskelavus and played it. Julien had two Teachings in his graveyard. He used one for Slaughter Pact, and I went all in with Triskelavus and countered it with Pact of Negation. He used the second for Careful Consideration, didn’t find an answer, and died.

Game 2 he tapped out on turn 4 to play Plague Sliver. I forced the discard of his hand with Haunting Hymn on my turn. I took two hits from the Sliver while I positioned myself with card drawing. Then I killed it with Tendrils, suspended a Chronicler, made a Shadowmage, and he conceded.

Not only I was lucky in game 1 and had a good draw in game 2 to match his, but I also had information about Julien’s deck and sideboard because we’re friends, and we (with Frank Karsten) shared information before the Grand Prix. This helped making decisions much easier.


Story: “The Grand Prix Curse”

There is a Portuguese Magic player called Joao Martins. Let me talk about him, and what he thinks of me.

We’re friends, but he thinks I’m bad at Magic.

Really, really bad.

He thinks I’m the most overrated player in the World, and can’t imagine how anyone can think I’m good at Magic. He says I’ll never Top 8 a GP, and every time I go to one he sits there at home hitting refresh on the coverage.

Every time I’m X-0, or X-0-1, or even X-1 he bets with anyone that I won’t make it to the Top 8. Time and time again people have called the bet, believing that one day I will break this curse and make it to the Top 8. When I make it back home and log to the Internet, I always receive a PM from him on MSN telling me: “Told you so, I knew it. You’ll never Top 8 anything.”

The interesting fact is, sometimes Joao Martins is busy doing other stuff instead of watching the coverage and cursing me. Sometimes he’s busy playing at those very same events. He’s a good player himself, and made it to the Pro Tour. There were two Pro Tours we both attended: Hawaii 06 and Worlds in Paris. I Top 8’d both. It seems that when Joao Martins is too busy playing his own matches, he doesn’t have time to hit refresh on the Internet coverage and curse me.

Good news… he won a PTQ for Valencia!

Strategy: “The Value of Information”

I already mentioned that during round 9, knowing the contents of Julien Nuijten’s maindeck and sideboard helped me make decisions in games 1 and 2, and helped inform my sideboarding plans. I had that information because we’re friends, and we choose to share it with each other before the tournament. Let’s take, for example, the mirror match. There are some questions that, if answered, can help you find the right play. For example:

Can I win the Factory wars? — It depends on the number of Factories in the decks, Detritivore, Take Possession… and you only know the numbers in your deck.

Can I win the Ruins wars? — It depends on the number of Academy Ruins, and answers for it.

How should I sideboard? — Will he board in more suspend spells and more Pulls, or will he bring creatures?

Which creatures should I expect after board? — Plague Sliver, Shimian Specter, the Pickles combo, or none?

Let’s imagine you could answer those questions with 100% accuracy. Do you think you’d have an advantage? I believe so. Because I knew Julien’s decklist and, even though he already knew mine, I felt it was too big of an advantage to know the exact contents of the opponent’s decklist.

GP: Florence wasn’t the first time I finished undefeated at a Constructed Grand Prix on Day 1. Earlier this year, I went 9-0 at GP: Dallas, and they posted my decklist with Day 2 already started. This guarantees that people at home get the information about the successful decks on Day 1, and ensures that no one at the tournament has an unfair advantage of scouting, since players who made Day 2 are busy playing. In Florence, the coverage team posted the five undefeated decklists from Day 1 before Day 2 began, and mine was one of them. I felt extremely injured (times one thousand) by that. Not only did all my opponents have access to my decklist the night before, I did not have access to theirs. I complained a lot to the people in charge. I hope they won’t do this again, but if it happens to me, it’s a good sign… it means I’m doing okay again at a Grand Prix.

Story: “An Unfortunate Magazine”

Since I was the only one from our room to have made Day 2, the other three didn’t care about resting and sleeping, and were planning to wake up after noon for sightseeing. That meant I would have very little sleep that night, since they were just goofing around all night. Eventually it seemed that everyone was heading to bed. I was already in mine, trying to get some sleep, and had been there for quite a while. It seemed I would get about five hours of sleep, until Frederico Costa exclaimed, “who bought this Vision magazine?” (A Portuguese weekly magazine similar to the Times magazine.)

Then I remembered. It was mine, and I used it the day before as a base to write down my decklist for the Grand Prix, and left it on the TV table. I felt very silly for leaving it there the day before, for them to find it now.

They spent an extra hour reading and commentating the articles, on stuff like the Panama Canal, or needing a license to possess a decorative Samurai sword, and other such interesting matters. Until they reached an article about the recently crowned World Triathlon Champion, a Portuguese chick named Vanessa Fernandes.

They start discussing how Vanessa is the typical stereotype of the Portuguese woman: dark haired, short, no curves, etc. I nearly died laughing, but I had to keep pretending I was asleep. If they knew I was still awake, they’d randomly ask me weird questions… the length of the Panama Canal, for example.

Google for the World Triathlon Champion, and odds-on favorite to take the gold medal at the Olympic Games: Vanessa Fernandes. Once you have, you’ll understand.

Strategy: “Day 2 of the Grand Prix”

Round 10: U/G Aggro-Goyf

This is a tough matchup, but winnable. Game 1 he won the roll had a good start, and I was always behind. I tried some Damnations or Tendrils, but were always countered or Vensered.

Game 2 he had a huge board, with many creatures including Looter il-Kor, but just two cards in hand and only four mana. I had seven mana, plenty of cards in hand including three Damnations, and a Shadowmage in play. I attacked, didn’t draw an eighth land… but tried Damnation, and he countered it. He attacked me, and next turn I’m dead. He passed with two cards and four mana open. I attacked with the Shadowmage, and played Damnation. He played Mystic Snake. I have another Damnation, but no land to cast it, with only three open. If I’d had that land, I would clear the board and leave him with four lands and one card against my full hand.


Round 11: U/B Mirror

I kept with Lens, Triskelavus, Academy Ruins, Urza’s Factory, Damnation, and two more lands. I drew only lands, Damnations, Tendrils. He played Hymn, and I kept a Triskelavus. I went all in again with this plan, but unlike the match against Julien, this time he had a full hand and a solution for it.

There were some problems with my opponent’s sleeves which involved a long period of waiting, decisions, re-sleeving, and I believe we weren’t given enough extra time, only seven extra minutes, I think at least ten would be justifiable. The judge refused to provide extra time for sleeving, claiming he would have to do it during the three minutes of sideboarding and shuffling. If he failed to do it in the three minutes, he would get a game loss. With the help of two judges, they took five minutes and a half, but there was no game loss, nor any additional time. I didn’t say anything, because I think it’s a bad ruling, as it’s humanly impossible to sideboard, shuffle, de-sleeve and resleeve a deck in three minutes… but I should’ve reminded the judge that we indeed could use the extra time.

We were mana screwed at the beginning, both on three mana, but that was enough for him to use Strangling Soot on my guys. I failed to mount an offensive, and he finally drew lands and had a full hand, so I conceded with approximately five minutes of the extra time remaining because I knew I wasn’t winning the game.


Round 12: Tomoharu Saito, G/W Goyf

Game 1 he wins the roll and chooses to draw. This matchup is so bad for him, and his only chance is for me to mulligan or be screwed. It didn’t happen, so I crushed him like it was meant to be.

Game 2 he has a very good sideboard against me, and suddenly he’s the control deck, with Sunlance for my Shadowmages, Harmonize, Crovax, and Sacred Mesa. The creatures he leaves are Saffi, Call, Goyf, and Mystic Enforcer. The matchup swings a lot with this sideboard.

Game 3 he has Sunlance for my Shadowmage, and topdecks a second for my backup Shadowmage. Without drawing extra cards, I don’t draw lands.


And, as usual, I’m eliminated from the Top 8 contention. Maybe now things would start getting better.

Round 13: U/B Korlash — Win 2-0
Round 14: U/G Control — Win 2-0
Round 15: U/B aggro — Lose 0-2

I think I have a slight advantage against the U/B Korlash deck, but it may be just a false impression, as I’m sure his deck didn’t operate at 100% against me in both games. The U/G deck was similar to my first round opponent, like the list that took second place in San Francisco, with Cancel and Ancestral Visions. One game he had only one Blue mana, so I played Void for four, killing Venser in play and Mystic Snake in hand. He revealed double Teferi and double Cancel, so I played another Void in same turn thanks to Relic and storage mana, for five, killing the Teferis and the Chronicler in play.

The final round was for the Top 32. I lost, and finished 46th. It was against the editor of a Spanish magazine that I write for: Martin Scheinin (I’m probably misspelling it). In game 1 he played Looter il-Kor, Careful Consideration, and among the discarded cards there was a Damnation. He killed me with Phyrexian Totem. I sided in Shimian Specter. I hit, I looked at his deck, and it was then I realized I shouldn’t have brought the Specter in… but during sideboarding I didn’t have that information available. I put up a decent fight, but drew poorly. The matchup wasn’t good ,and I had sideboarded wrongly, therefore I lost.

And after such a fun holiday and tournament, here I am back in Portugal, trying to catch up with the Standard format for my Nationals this weekend. I haven’t played the format in many months, and in the past few days I’ve discovered so many new decks I didn’t even know existed. If Nationals were Block Constructed, I would play the exact same list as above, replacing the Shimian Specters in the sideboard with Plague Slivers. Unfortunately, it isn’t, so I don’t have much time to find a Standard deck. I don’t have a good feeling about this, but we’ll see…

I hope you enjoyed this compilation of small stories and strategic insights… and thank you for reading!