Midsummer Reflection

Three-time GP Top 8 competitor Matt Costa reflects on his summer of Magic thus far, from Pro Tour Avacyn Restored to this past weekend at SCG Open Series: Buffalo.

The story of Sisyphus comes to mind. A king punished for eternity to roll a boulder up a mountainside, only to watch it tumble back down again.

To start the summer, I mentioned that I’d be spending much more on time on Magic—an article every week, a tournament most weekends—made possible by the blessing of a large amount of free time I’ll likely not have in the same way for a while. At the beginning of the summer I also might’ve sounded like I was ready for all that. It’s been an interesting couple months…

Part One: Motivation

Pro Tour Avacyn Restored is still a blur. A week of finals and moving landed an over-tired, over-caffeinated version of me in Spain, unprepared for maybe the most important tournament of my life. After two particularly frustrating losses on Day 1, I was sitting at 5-3, needing a solid Day 2 to secure a bid to the Players Championship.

Few other American pros were doing well at the time, and a first round feature match on Day 2 against Luis Scott-Vargas had us joking around about how that match might be for the title of national champion. To our mutual surprise and dismay, those three match points would be a big portion of our combined wins on the day.

A disappointing 148th place finish later, I watched as PT stalwarts Shuuhei Nakamura, David Ochoa, and Shouta Yasooka all posted strong finishes and jumped ahead of me in the race. Some quick math indicated that I could now only make the Players Championship if Jon Finkel won the Pro Tour—not a bad horse, right?

Waking up late the next morning, I learned Jon had already lost his quarterfinals match in epic fashion. I spent the rest of the day in a haze and honestly started to feel a bit sick. This might’ve just been the hectic month of school and traveling catching up to me, but I can’t help but think it was tied to the stress and disappointment of my weekend.

Luckily, the next few days in Barcelona reminded me why I really love the Pro Tour, as I spent time adventuring around the city and Spanish countryside with Reid Duke, Orrin Beasley, and Pat Cox.

Standing by the secluded mountain monastery of Montserrat, I had a brief moment of perspective. In a place with little technology, stress, or thoughts of Magic, I was unbelievably happy taking in a breathtakingly serene view with good friends by my side.

Spanish Countryside

It was in that moment that I realized I was chasing three separate feelings through Magic.

The high of victory, characterized by the Players Championship and my determination to not let it slip away again.

The stress of competition, a bipolar high/low experience ending only in relief or crippling disappointment.

But most importantly:

A unique experience shared with a few others atop a mountain, on an island, or wandering through foreign streets. In these moments there’s no desire to be somewhere else, no agenda to be fulfilled, and no “what’s next?”

Part Two: Smooth Sailing

The next month felt easy. GP Minneapolis and GP Anaheim flew by quickly, and on the Magic side of things, I posted Top 16 finishes at both tournaments. I was even able to channel the spirit of Sam Black by losing early and rattling off a number of consecutive wins. Every round was intense, but there was rarely any doubt that I would win—the type of confidence that comes only when you’re on a hot streak. It’s no coincidence when someone posts back-to-back Top 8s or does well again right after a PT or GP win.

Outside the tournament was great as well; I stayed at Jason Ford place in Minneapolis, and a few days later, Jason and I were greeted in Long Beach by gracious host Ryan Bogner. (Player to watch, by the way: Ryan has burst onto the scene with a PT cash and a bunch of good GP finishes.)

Those GPs were followed by a couple SCG Open Series tournaments. I wrote about Worcester here, and then I attended the SCG Invitational in Indianapolis, where I played Delver in Standard to a 7-1 result while playing against a total of 32 Seachrome Coasts in eight rounds (including six mirrors). Legacy went much worse, as I switched away from my typical RUG to an atrocious BUG control deck, where a 4-4 result kept me from finishing better than Top 16.

Regardless, four tournaments in a row went very well for me. Though I was disappointed to miss Top 8 on a couple occasions, it’s hard to complain about that type of success over a month of competition.

Sometimes, you just have to take the day before the GP to go to an amusement park.

When it’s easy, it’s easy.


Part Three: Collapse

Things aren’t always easy. GP Vancouver was such a tournament, and I squeaked out a 7-2 record with one of the worst Sealed decks I’ve ever opened. It didn’t matter, as I messed up very badly in the first draft and very quickly 0-3’d.

It was ok, though, because the next week was GP Atlanta. I wasn’t going to make the same mistake as last time. BUG was a horrible deck; I was never going to play that again. Turns out Reanimator was even worse, and a 6-1-2 record meant that for the first time in many months I missed Day 2 at a GP.

Frustrated, I resolved to do well at GP Columbus. I spent many weeks testing Modern, coming up with a U/B Delver deck that I was extremely successful with online. I had rarely felt so good before a GP, in a format where I was pretty sure people would have less experience than I did. A missed Slaughter Pact payment later, and I was 0-1. I spent the rest of day crawling back, only to lose the last round and finish 6-3. The car ride back to Reid’s house in New York was a long one, and I was pretty down on Magic.

Three Grand Prix. 7-2. 6-1-2. 6-3. Downhill.

When you’re losing, every loss is agonizing. It took lots of prodding by Ben Lundquist to get me to move out of my seat after round 9 in Columbus. In that moment, it all came to a breaking point. Why do I show up? I put in effort practicing and invested time and money in travel, only to lose focus and make stupid mistakes. It makes you wonder if past success was a fluke—that you were making those types of mistakes all along but not getting punished for them. It may be hyperbole, but it’s also so tough to avoid looking at results when that’s all anyone looks at.

At GP Atlanta, I remember showing up on Sunday morning to watch my friends who had made Day 2. At the same time, I was borderline embarrassed to be there and watch pairings go up without my name on them. Each round was a constant reminder of my failure, compounded by the occasional person asking for my record.

I played in SCG Open Series: Buffalo this past weekend and managed to finish X-2 in both events, though missing Top 8 after starting 6-0 in Standard was still a tough pill to swallow.

Dave Shiels and I talked ourselves into playing very stock U/W Delver and RUG Delver lists, and he had a piece of insight that really helped me out. If we were to build a new deck and play it for the first time, Top 16 would be reasonable finish, and a lot of good would come out of the deckbuilding and tuning process. When you’re playing something you’ve played a million times before, you’re going all in on 1st place. Coming out with anything less than a trophy is a disappointment, and I’m okay with that.

I don’t think I took losing particularly well this past month. I learned some things, but I definitely could have learned more. I lost focus again and again. I was out of my routine, and somehow I didn’t realize it until it was too late.

SCG Open Series: Washington, DC and GP Boston-Worcester are hopefully Part Four for me. I want to return where I was at in Minneapolis and Anaheim: focus, confidence, and self-awareness. This isn’t just about Magic; it’s a story of moving through life with jobs, relationships, and self-satisfaction.

That moment on top of the mountain. Looking down from above, with the world at your fingertips. Lose focus for one minute, and it all slips away.

Everyone knows what it’s like to be chasing something, even something as fleeting as Magic success. Magic might seem like it doesn’t define you, but how can something be unimpactful when you play, read, and think about it for what seems like every minute of every day?

I look at my phone after I win round 9.

Jason Ford: “and?”

Me: “7-2. Heart pounding out of my chest, etc. Live for this.”

Thanks for reading,
Matt Costa